A razor-sharp memory, particularly the ability to use legal precedents to full advantage, is what makes a lawyer tick. For politicians, however, any over-familiarity with history isn't a professional attribute, at least not when it involves communicating with an electorate that lives for the present and dreams of the future.
This disconcerting facet of modernity appears to have escaped the Bharatiya Janata Party president, L.K. Advani. Ever since the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government bared its streak of intolerance, first in Goa, then in Jharkhand and, finally, in Bihar, it has become customary for the leader of the opposition to invoke the dreaded Emergency of 1975-77. 'I am reminded of the Emergency,' has become a feature of Advani-speak.
The allusion may well be compelling but it is pertinent to question its efficacy. In just over three weeks, on June 26, it will be exactly 30 years from the day Indira Gandhi put democracy on hold, jailed the vast majority of the non-communist opposition and suspended civil liberties. Amid a vulgar display of sycophancy and high-handedness, India was turned into a one-party, authoritarian state.
For those who were old enough to remember those terrible 21 months, the Emergency will always be a defining moment. Apart from the all-pervasive atmosphere of fear and terror which, of course, ensured that trains ran on time, the Emergency became the occasion for political goons of the ruling party to use the special powers to settle personal scores. It was not merely the rule of law that was put on hold; the codes of decency were kept in suspended animation. The rajmatas of Jaipur and Gwalior were kept in cells with common criminals and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) parliamentarian, Jyotirmoy Basu, singled out for exceptional treatment because he had the temerity to question the special favours given to the small car project of the prime minister's son. Even Kishore Kumar was banned from All India Radio because he had offended someone, somewhere.
'Emergency: an era of discipline' was the cryptic certificate of approval issued by the senile Bhoodan leader, Acharya Vinoba Bhave ' a testimonial faithfully stamped on every postcard and inland letter form. 'The Leader is right, the future is bright,' proclaimed a gigantic hoarding in Delhi's Connaught Place, sponsored by a 'progressive' weekly from Bombay. From the smoke-emitting rear of the capital's three-wheeler taxis, Indians were reassured that 'The nation is on the move'. And the Congress president, D.K. Barooah, announced matter-of-factly that India is Indira.
The Communist Party of India organized conventions against fascism and leftist intellectuals cheered with unconcealed glee as 'Hindu communalist' teachers were rounded up and petty traders forced to sign statements supporting the 20-point programme of the prime minister. As the education minister, S. Nurul Hasan, purged the arts faculties of undesirables and made Marxism the guiding philosophy of the social sciences, notables like the British Labour Party leader, Michael Foot, toured India and gushed over Jawaharlal Nehru's daughter.
The grotesque parody didn't stop here. After Sanjay Gandhi was anointed Arjun by a fawning N.D. Tiwari, it was time for fascistic inanities to take over. 'Talk less, work more' became the mantra of the Sanjay brigade. The Youth Congress has 'stolen the thunder', a proud mother proclaimed. From the sidelines, Ambika Soni, Jagdish Tytler, Kamal Nath and Lalit Maken cheered. 'Sanjay Gandhi's rise to power,' wrote Russi Karanjia in Blitz, 'came to us as History's own answer to our prayers.' Other venerable editors like Khushwant Singh agreed.
Much of the grim history of the Emergency can be pieced together from the two volumes of the Shah Commission interim report, David Selbourne's richly documented An Eye to India and John Dayal and Ajoy Bose's Delhi Under Emergency. In addition, Janardhan Thakur's All the Prime Minister's Men provides riveting pen portraits of the individuals who propped up Indira Gandhi's tyranny. It's a shame though that most of these books are either out of print or, in the case of J.C. Shah's report, conveniently withdrawn from circulation. The only available account of those dark days is In the Name of Democracy, an apologist account of Jayaprakash Narayan's perfidy and Indira Gandhi's compulsions, by the text-book historian Bipan Chandra.
However, it is not merely the absence of available histories that has transformed the experience of the Emergency into a non-event for the overwhelming majority of India's under-45s. There appears to be an unbridgeable gap between those for whom the Emergency was a political landmark and those for whom it is a meaningless shibboleth. There is a discernible absence of an enduring mythology and political folklore surrounding the Emergency that spans the generations.
Take the case of George Fernandes, a politician who is today at the centre of a political storm. For one generation of politicos, Fernandes is a heroic figure, the man who tormented Indira Gandhi and who inspired the resistance against authoritarianism. To another generation, Fernandes is just another unworthy politician. One generation remembers the handcuffed chief accused in the Baroda dynamite case defiantly proclaiming, 'The chains we bear today are the symbols of the entire nation that has been fettered by dictatorship'; the other generation thinks of the sly insinuations in the Tehelka videotapes.
In the annals of anti-Congressism ' the thread that binds the regional parties, the followers of Ram Manohar Lohia and the Hindu nationalists ' the Emergency is a lost opportunity. The groundswell of anger that drove the Congress out of office in 1977 was, first, allowed to be dissipated. The Janata Party experiment of 1977-80 was such an unmitigated disaster that Indira Gandhi bounced back with a vengeance. In the 28 years since the Emergency was lifted, the Congress has been in power at the Centre for nearly 16 years, enough time to bowdlerize memory.
Secondly, the dilution of the democratic momentum after 1977 ensured that no permanent opprobrium was attached to those who played either junior officers or foot-soldiers of the Emergency. All regimes after 1977 seemed more than willing to indulge those who ratted on their colleagues to stay out of jail. Their re-entry into the orbit of anti-Congressism ensured a cross-party stake in the promotion of amnesia.
Finally, the Congress quickly grasped that outright authoritarianism would provoke a backlash. Political power, it felt, could be better held through the subterfuge of institutions rather than a frontal assault on democracy. Sonia Gandhi is not taking her cue from the Emergency. There are enough other shadowy precedents to fall back on. And, there are enough compliant governors and civil servants willing to bend the rules. Those interested could mull over the Shah Commission's account of the conduct of the present election commissioner, Navin Chawla, during the Emergency.
The ghosts of the Emergency have been finally exorcised. For this, the Congress must thank a fatal miscalculation on the other side. In 1977, the drive and energy of the Janata Party was provided by leaders like Fernandes, Chandra Shekhar, Subramanian Swamy and, to a lesser extent, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Yet, the rewards of victory were reaped by veterans like Morarji Desai, Jagjivan Ram and Charan Singh, who were still enmeshed in the battles of the late-Sixties. Consequently, the Janata government lacked the inspirational aplomb to elevate the anti-Emergency struggle into folklore. Its generals were busy replaying past battles.
Ironically, by the time those who should have got power in 1977 finally grasped the prize 21 years later, they themselves were horribly dated. As the bewildered and bemused popular responses to Advani's invocations of the Emergency indicate, post-dated cheques can't ever keep pace with changing values. And not when the currency itself has changed.