Book Review: India’s First Dictatorship by Christophe Jaffrelot and Pratinav Anil

Christophe Jaffrelot and Anil Pratinav write and important book on Emergency, proclaimed by Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi on 25 June 1975, which lasted for 21 months.

My main takeaways;

The authors divide their book in three parts, each dealing with a theme that characterized Emergency. The first part deals with the classification of Emergency as an authoritarian regime. The second part analyses the reasons why Mrs. Gandhi imposed Emergency while the third part deals with the resistance to and the reasons behind the lifting of Emergency in January 1977.

  • In trying to define the nature of authoritarianism that characterised emergency, the authors use Juan Linz’s typology which seek to define the variant of authoritarianism based on three criteria: the degree of pluralism, the extent of mobilisation in society and the role of ideology. Based on Lind’s typology, they characterise the Emergency as an ‘organic statist’ regime. Its three peculiarities were – (a) there was no regime change in the sense that the constitution was not abrogated and replaced, India’s political system remained as before; both federal and parliamentarian. Every anti-democratic step which Mrs Gandhi took had parliamentary approval and was also endorsed by the Supreme Court. (b) Emergency, like other authoritarian regime lacked an ideology. All the progressive and socialist rhetoric was just that, rhetoric with nepotism and cronyism ruling the roost. The regime developed a multivocal style, Mrs. Gandhi and Congress leaders tailoring their speeches to suit the audience; language of capital formation at business conclaves and emphasising workers rights with the unionists.  Political authoritarianism and social hierarchies reinforced each other, with Sanjay Gandhi’s gentrification and sterilization drives targeting mainly Muslims and Dalits. (c) Emergency encouraged depoliticization, for the regime followed no ideological consistency or doctrine, thereby making it more difficult for people to think and act politically.  This depoliticization of society was helped by the opposition and the JP Movement as well as the strikes orchestrated by the trade unions, developments which created a sense of fatigue with politics, mostly amongst the middle class.
  • Periodizing the 21-month Emergency, the first few months were dominated by Mrs. Gandhi’s agenda as reflected in her 20-point programme, but by the early 1976, the agenda was hijacked by Sanjay Gandhi and his five-point programme, with its attendant focus on mass serialization and gentrification. The rise of Sanjay Gandhi also saw a change in the nature of the Congress party, with the Youth Congress and the henchmen of Sanjay Gandhi coming to dominate the organisation. The criminalization and lumpenisation of the Congress party began in earnest, indiscriminate acts of nepotism and despotism became the order of governance. This extensively researched book provides several examples of such nepotism and cronyism, which fills one with disgust.
  • There was also a geographic north south divide in the nature of Emergency – more so in the repression faced by the people. The epicentre of the emergency excesses were the areas around Delhi and in the Hindi heartland, where the cronies and lackeys of Sanjay were in control. In the states beyond the Vindhayas Congress either governed through a coalition or had strong party bosses who did not let Sanjay have his way completely and so the excesses of Emergency were not that severely felt by the populous. This got reflected in the election results of 1977, where in the Hindi heartland the Congress won just 2 out of the 226 seats whereas its position in the four southern states remained intact, it sweeping 92 of the 129 seats on offer. In contrast while the Janata Party won 116 seats in the Hindi belt, it could win only a paltry 3 seats in the South.
  • While many scholars have argued, and rightly so, that the trigger for the Emergency was the Allahabad High Court Judgement against her and the gathering support for the JP movement, the authors have also looked at the reasons why Mrs Gandhi could prevail and impose Emergency without much opposition. This was made possible because of the changes she had brought about in the Congress, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, converting it into an over-centralised and personalised political machine. She was also helped by the support she got from the Communist Party of India, Shiv Sena, RPI cadres, industrialists, trade unionists, bureaucrats and a section of the intelligentsia, who actively collaborated with her.
  • On the question as to why Mrs. Gandhi lifted emergency and called for a general election, one can only conjecture. The authors argue that it probably had something to do with the three factors; (a) By 1976 she had become aware of some of the regime’s excesses and the deterioration of India’s image it was causing abroad. A victory in a snap election would help her legitimise these excesses. (b) She was sensitive to critiques coming from abroad, more so that Bhutto of Pakistan had announced elections and that India would now be considered more authoritarian than Pakistan, was probably difficult for her to digest and probably induced her to announce elections in early 1977. (c) and most importantly because she was sure that she would win, a confidence she acquired from intelligence reports and also because the opposition was in shambles.
  • The book also reinforces the view of cynics like me that the more things change in India, the more they remain the same. The change is only in degree, in the pace of execution and all ‘substantial’ changes in India are glacial. The Janata government too embraced her 20-point programme, and in October 1977, Raj Narain, Minister of Health and Family Welfare was threatening to cut off central funds to those states that did not do enough sterilization, the pressure (less coercive, of course) now shifted to women for men had become more defiant.  The gentrification of the urban spaces continued apace too, with Morarji Desai enquiring about and finally getting the unauthorised fish market removed, from the Old Delhi area which had witnessed horrendous events like the Turkman Gate episode during emergency.
  • The book also provides details of the struggles and compromises of the press, political parties, leadership, elites and intelligentsia against Emergency, and frankly it does not provide for a very happy picture. It also shows why in India the ‘formalism’ associated with the democratic process will always triumph over the ‘values’ that democracy entails. The formal, till date, enjoys more hegemony in the minds of average Indians and frankly the Emergency showed that despite all talks of deepening of democracy in India, this deepening is only in the realm of the former, not the latter. Even for the intelligentsia, as the recently concluded Bengal election and its aftermath showed, their commitment to democratic values remain skin deep and extremely shallow.   As the authors say, ‘Studying the Emergency helps us understand the nature of Indian polity. For this period reveals both the vulnerabilities and limits of Indian democracy….’

A very good read, but with the caveat that as with Jaffrelot, while I love his scholarship and research, but cant help but differ with his ‘interpretation’ many a times.

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