Kanchan Gupta: Dynasty above Democracy

Democracy, like the other great invention of mankind, is a great organizing principle underlying modern societies. But both have quite strict preconditions to be met before they deliver the goods. Economists understand that markets fail under specific circumstances and have figured out mechanisms to guard against those. Similarly, I believe that the implementation of the abstract idea of democracy depends on the specifics of the situation. In India’s case, the outcome is what I call a cargo cult democracy (see my post “Cargo Cult Democracy” May 2004). Kanchan Gupta’s article, “Dynasty above Democracy“, illustrates one particularly ugly feature of Indian democracy — the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and its baleful effect on India. Experts below, for the record.

A couple of years ago, recalling Mrs Indira Gandhi’s assault on democracy through the suppression of Fundamental Rights, a critic of the Emergency had bitterly commented: “Hitler was Indira and Indira was Hitler!” That comment came after he had drawn some telling comparisons between the Emergency regime of Adolf Hitler and that of Mrs Indira Gandhi. Hitler had imposed Emergency under a constitutional provision, so had Mrs Gandhi. Hitler had killed freedom of speech with censorship, so had Mrs Gandhi. Hitler had a 25-point programme, so did Mrs Gandhi (well, she had a 20-point programme; her younger son, Sanjay, had a five-point programme). A sycophant in Hitler’s camp is believed to have said, “Hitler is Germany and Germany is Hitler”; Dev Kant Baruah, who was president of the Congress during the Emergency, affirmed his loyalty by declaring, “Indira is India and India is Indira!” There would be other comparisons, too. For instance, Hitler had his Nazi goons, Mrs Gandhi had her Youth Congress thugs. In Hitler’s Germany trains are believed to have run on time, so also in Indira’s India, lending credence to the Government’s claim that “The nation is on the move.”

Yet, despite the stunning similarities that marked free India’s loss of liberty during those joyless 21 months of the Emergency that was clamped on an unsuspecting nation on the night of June 25, 1975, it would be unfair to describe Mrs Gandhi as Herr Hitler. After all, while the Emergency may have witnessed several outrages, including the incarceration of virtually the entire political opposition, the hounding of those who dared raise their voice against the Government, among them a handful of journalists, and the subversion of the Constitution of India to place Mrs Gandhi above the party and the Congress above the nation, but we were spared the sight of men, women and children being marched to concentration camps, adorned with signboards proclaiming ‘Work Liberates’, and their eventual death in gas chambers. The closest we came to this was a silly slogan, “Talk less, work more.” There were two other equally silly slogans that were ubiquitous. “Emergency: An era of discipline,” which was attributed to Gandhian Bhoodan leader Acharya Vinoba Bhave and prominently stamped on postcards and inland letter forms. The other was, “The leader is right, the future is bright.”

Kanchan writes that people were gripped with fear.

Parents worried themselves sick if their children were not home by sunset. Wives panicked if their husbands were late in returning from work. Friends stopped trusting friends; relatives were cautious in what they told each other; Government employees avoided sharing chai and gossip with colleagues; nobody spoke to strangers. You never knew who had been co-opted by the Emergency mukhabarat. In coffee houses, popular among college and university students those days — the brew was cheap and cigarettes were shared — the staff discouraged overcrowding at tables. Schools had to seek prior approval for elocution contests and essay competitions. I recall an incensed Fr Powell cancelling the annual elocution contest at our school after a paan-chewing babu refused to clear the perennial favourite, Patrick Henry’s “Give me Liberty, or give me Death!” and accused him of “polluting young minds”.

Whenever I see yet another scheme, university, road, airport or college named after Mrs Gandhi, I am reminded that in India, criminals often get top billing, and the greater the crime, the higher is the regard that the criminal is held in. Those who harmed India the most are the most venerated. Indians don’t remember anyone who did anything great for India but they certainly keep the memory alive of those who did the most harm. One major avenue in the capital New Delhi is named after a major criminal — Aurangzeb. A more contemporary example is the woman called Mother Teresa. They have named another street in New Delhi after her. I am sure in time to come they will use Antonia Maino aka Sonia Gandhi’s name.

Mrs Indira Gandhi committed an enormous crime against the nation. In time perhaps Indians will learn that the Congress party was the nations greatest enemy, or perhaps they may not. But now at least there is an opportunity for people to know. Back to Kanchan.

But these are frivolous details that do not quite capture the enormity of the crime that was committed in the name of ‘saving’ the nation from the Opposition led by Jayaprakash Narayan. Mrs Gandhi should have resigned after the Allahabad High Court held her guilty of corrupt practices during the 1971 Lok Sabha poll, declared her election from Rae Bareli null and void, and barred her from contesting elections for six years. Instead, Mrs Gandhi imposed Emergency, had the judgement set aside by the Supreme Court, packed off her critics to jails, extended the life of Parliament and subverted the Constitution.

There were horror stories of young men, some in their teens, being picked up and ‘sterilised’ by zealous district officials eager to meet targets set for them. Overnight all goons and thugs became active members of the Youth Congress and took to wearing white kurtas with Chinese collars in deference to their leader, Sanjay Gandhi, whose meteoric rise to power by virtue of being Mrs Gandhi’s son was described by Russi Karanjia as “history’s own answer to our prayers”. The venerable Khushwant Singh, who was then editor of The Illustrated Weekly, was an unabashed supporter of Mrs Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi, and found nothing wrong with their deeds.

The Congress loves to suppress information. Censorship is a favorite hobby. Kapil Sibal is exhibit A in the present time but Mrs Gandhi set the gold standard.

Newspaper editors had to send galley proofs to censors who would laboriously read through the text, cross out portions they thought were not in conformity with official policy or had a whiff of criticism or simply because they couldn’t understand and and hence were deemed not fit to be published. A copy of next morning’s paper had to be hand-delivered to the censors to prove that the might of their blue pencil had not been defied. Not that too many editors were eager to fall foul of the Emergency regime. In fact, a group of editors marched to Mrs Gandhi’s residence and presented her with a petition pointing out that the censorship laws were not strict enough and needed to be made harsher. As Mr LK Advani was to later famously say, “Asked to bend, many chose to crawl.”

Many still choose to crawl even without being asked to bend. Not only in the Congress, but also in the media.

Another era, another Mrs Gandhi. Perhaps it will soon be time for another “Emergency” since the new Mrs Gandhi may be in danger of being hauled to jail.