There is no dearth of people who fear that the new prime minister, Narendra Modi, will slowly become dictatorial, now that his party has won a big mandate on its own. To buttress their arguments they cite the example of Indira Gandhi, who declared a state of Emergency in India in 1975. While it is understandable if one is wary, given the riots that occurred in Gujarat in 2002 under Modiís chief ministership, there is no need to be too apprehensive. This is because bigger responsibilities make a person more responsible. More importantly, the democratic system in India will not allow a dictator to flourish. Indira Gandhi may have imposed the Emergency, but it lasted less than two years, and she eventually paid the price for that mistake.
Indian democracy has matured over the last few decades. The situation today is different. The chief minister of a state may become authoritarian, but the prime minister of the country will not find it so easy to be dictatorial. Today, only six states are ruled by the party heading the government at the Centre ó the Bharatiya Janata Party. While it has won a record number of seats in the Lok Sabha, it does not hold the majority in the Rajya Sabha, which is essential for making some changes. In the 1970s, it was much easier for Indira Gandhi to become authoritarian than it will be for Modi now.
According to the Indian Constitution, law and order is a state subject. State governments have greater scope to implement the policies of the Centre as they deem fit. The Centre, on its own, cannot get work done at the grassroot level. It becomes easier to impose authoritarian rule all over the country if the same party is in power at the Centre as well as the states; this is not likely to happen in the near future. The BJP is in power in some states, and may come to power in a few more in a year or two, but it will not be victorious in nearly every state. The situation today bears little resemblance to India in the 1970s.
In 1975, however, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam was the ruling party in Tamil Nadu, and the impact of the Emergency was not felt too greatly in the state for a while. Emergency regulations and Press censorship were not strictly enforced in Tamil Nadu, unlike in other states. The ruling DMK opposed the imposition of the state of Emergency. But then Indira Gandhi cracked the whip ó she imposed presidentís rule in the state on January 31, 1976, and dismissed the DMK government even though it enjoyed a majority in the state assembly.
But can a Central government invoke Article 356 today and dissolve so many state governments where the BJP is not in power? It is not so easy, thanks to the Indian Constitution which provides adequate checks and balances. In the 1970s, Indira Gandhi became authoritarian because the multi-party system had not yet taken root.
More than Modiís personal views, it is the ideology of the organization with which he is associated that matters. Indira Gandhi may have acted in a dictatorial fashion, but her party, the Indian National Congress, in spite of its large-scale degeneration, essentially remained democratic and pluralistic. It is unlikely to become an organization such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
It remains to be seen whether the BJP follows the tenets of the Constitution and acts in a democratic manner that is independent of the prime ministerís own views or those of its parent organization, the RSS, which believes in following its own agenda. In a pluralistic, democratic society like that of India, there is limited scope for the long term growth of such organizations.