In democracies around the world political parties rarely, if ever, find themselves grappling with the question whether the party is above individuals or individuals are above the party. The party is never seen as being subordinate to an individual or group of individuals.
Not so in this part of the world where the nature of politics is such that individuals often become larger than the party. The only exceptions would be parties with structured organisations like the CPI(M) and the BJP -- the first now reduced to a footnote of electoral politics, the second in power at the moment.
Which is a sad commentary on the decline and collapse of the Congress, the only other national party that continues to cede space to others and runs the risk of being pushed to the margins. And that is primarily because the Congress remains in thraldom of the Dynasty. The Dynasty is Congress and Congress is Dynasty.
A natural extension of that blind and utterly misplaced faith is the belief that Congress is India and India is Congress, or Dynasty is India and India is Dynasty.
Democracy doesn’t feature in this equation; if anything, it’s an irritation to be dealt with by imposing curbs and restricting freedom.
Some years ago, recalling Mrs Indira Gandhi’s assault on democracy through the suppression of Fundamental Rights, a critic of the Emergency, imposed on June 25 forty years ago, 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 valid 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 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 death camps.
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.”
Having said that, it is not as if people were not bothered about the Emergency regime and life went on as usual in the country’s cities, towns and villages. With fundamental rights suspended, the judiciary packed with ‘committed’ judges and no jholawallahs around to light candles for people who mysteriously disappeared after the proverbial midnight knock on their doors or file PILs demanding they be located and produced in court (even if they had done so their petitions would have been dumped into the nearest dustbin), a strange sense of fear gripped everybody.
Some activists did try the habeas corpus route but it was ruled against by the Supreme Court. Four senior judges upheld the Government’s view that along with fundamental rights, even the right to life stood abrogated. The only judge who spoke for freedom was Justice HR Khanna: He gave a dissenting opinion, asserting that the right to life and liberty enshrined in the Constitution was inviolable and not subject to executive decree. Not that it helped.
Friends stopped trusting friends; relatives were cautious in what they told each other; colleagues avoided sharing chai and gossip; 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 discourage overcrowding at tables.
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.
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 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.
The writer is a senior journalist based in the National Capital Region. His Twitter handle is @KanchanGupta