Forty-six years ago, a dark chapter of India’s history was written when the Congress government of the day led by PM Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency on the country, in an ugly spectacle of authoritarian arrogance, making a mockery of the country’s centuries-old democratic tradition. The question that still remains unanswered is whether the brazen recourse to authoritarianism – when even the right to life was suspended and Parliament, judiciary and media were reduced to auxiliaries for the ambitions of a leader – was an aberration or represented the natural instincts of Congress’s dynastic politics.
India’s ancient history is replete with examples of flourishing democratic governance systems such as the Kamboj, Kalinga and Lichchavi kingdoms. Even an ancient text such as the Rig Veda has evidence of democratic practices. This march towards democratic ideals, which had continued even under monarchies, however, ran into hostile barriers when foreign invaders plundered, conquered, and, eventually, imposed their oppressive regimes on large parts.
After Independence, India took a big step by resolving to be a modern, progressive, democratic nation state. The framers of the Constitution fondly hoped that future governments would strive to translate dreams and ideals into reality by, above all, protecting the fundamental rights of citizens.
However, Congress, which, having come out of the womb of the freedom struggle, got the first opportunity to serve, flunked the test right at the outset when under Jawaharlal Nehru, it used false allegations related to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi to ban the RSS and its Panchajanya weekly. This was the first instance of a ‘ban’ being used as a weapon to smother the rival viewpoint.
In 1951-52, barely a year after the Constitution was adopted, Nehru, who was upset with the criticism of his policies, used the brute majority at his disposal to move the first amendment to impose restrictions on freedom of speech, disregarding the fervent resistance of the founder of Bharatiya Jan Sangh, Dr Shyama Prasad Mookerjee.
This was the foundation of authoritarianism that Indira Gandhi built upon when she imposed Emergency from the midnight of June 25, 1975, turning the entire country into a prison. Loknayak Jayaprakash Narayan and other prominent opposition leaders such as Morarji Desai, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani were thrown into jail.
Leaders such as Nanaji Deshmukh and George Fernandes went underground to lead a resistance movement. RSS, along with dozens of socio-cultural organisations, was banned. Media houses were subjected to shocking levels of censorship. Sadly, most newspapers meekly turned into mouthpieces of the Congress party, prompting Advani to famously remark that the “media crawled when it was asked to bend”.
Some have speculated about the possible driver for Indira Gandhi to organise the assault on democracy. But it was not any single incident or, as some apologists have argued, provocation which acted as the trigger. This has to do with the authoritarian mindset of the Congress leadership. This is what had led Indira Gandhi to defy the Allahabad high court verdict declaring her election illegal.
Authoritarianism and intolerance are hardwired into Congress and, therefore, instead of deriving the right lesson from its defeat in 1977, it went back to anti-democratic ways when it regained power and the baton passed to Rajiv Gandhi. Congress, which now poses as the champion of freedom of speech, tried to bring a censorship law disguised as Anti-Defamation Bill. Though the sinister objective could not be achieved because of opposition, the attempt to muzzle the media once again brought out its disdain for democratic principles and its lust for power.
The pattern should not surprise us. A party which has turned into a family fief and does not practice intra-party democracy cannot be expected to safeguard democratic principles. The very edifice of Congress is founded on the pillars of dynastic privileges. This ‘family first’ mindset is at the root of its dictatorial brazenness which led to Emergency.
BJP, under the stewardship of PM Narendra Modi, has put a spanner in the works of the dynastic parties that are guided by narrow personal motives of their bosses and their families. In today’s India, BJP is the only party that practices the principles of fairness, egalitarianism and equal opportunity in intra-party functioning. Its policies have also deepened democracy’s roots by bringing its fruits to the doorsteps of the underprivileged.
Democracy is not merely an electoral and political exercise. It is a much broader and deeper cultural phenomenon, one that stands for inclusive development, security for all, equal opportunities and equal rights. For the last seven years, the NDA government has worked tirelessly to uphold these through a range of policies.
Today, all the units of democracy are working with cooperation, coordination and balance. The judiciary, unlike in the days when Congress tried to turn it into an accessory of the executive, enjoys complete independence and has, whenever it has felt the need to do so, guided the government. The media has complete freedom to carry out its work. India’s parliamentary system has grown stronger over the last seven years.
Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar, in his last speech to the Constituent Assembly, stressed that for political democracy to succeed, it must be supplemented by spread of democracy in the social arena as well. PM Modi has, over seven years, endeavoured to implement these progressive ideals on the ground. The government has continuously worked towards creating a socially and economically equal nation and a fair society by empowering the most underprivileged.
It is a proof of support and goodwill for PM Modi that India has been able to enact much-delayed important laws concerning rights of citizens such as Citizenship (Amendment) Act and abrogation of Article 370. Congress has opposed these laws meant for empowering citizens and delivering justice to them only for partisan considerations. Its invocation of democracy to justify its cussed stance is deception. Its authoritarian impulses remain strong. This was evident when it got the bill to divide Andhra Pradesh passed by shuttering the doors of Parliament.
However, citizens are now alert. The youth now feel secure and empowered with a growing sense of cultural and national pride. I am sure that in future, no party or leader will dare to meddle with the country’s democratic values and create another Emergency-like situation.
(The writer is Union Home Minister, Government of India)