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The Big Picture – Today’s India and Lessons from Emergency
40 years ago to the day, what is considered as the biggest blot on Indian democracy was imposed on the people. The internal emergency which was proclaimed by then congress government including suspension of fundamental rights is considered one of the most traumatic periods for the fledgling democracy. This time period is also seen as the coming of the age of the Indian democracy. But, later the Indian parliament passed amendments to the constitution, the 44th amendment, to ensure that the future governments will not find it easy to impose another emergency in the country. However, some senior experts and politicians have observed recently, “Have we as a nation done enough since then to ensure that institutions have been strengthened to withstand such an assault on the freedom of the people.”
The emergency lasted for twenty one month. It began in June 1975, suspending civil liberties and allowed the government to rule by decree. After the emergency, when elections were called in March 1977, Mrs Indira Gandhi and her Congress party were roundly defeated by the alliance formed to oppose her Emergency, having emerged earlier during the political unrest that had prompted it. 1975 Emergency was a watershed in the history of independent India that sought to totally repudiate democratic rule for the first time. It reminded of the many dictatorships of the developing world in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
The emergency also gave the beginning of the end of dominance by a single political party at the centre in India that had begun eroding a decade earlier. India’s voters subsequently rejected congress party led by Mrs Indira Gandhi, showing a mature appetite for the rule of law and public accountability that their poverty and educational backwardness might not have led one to expect. National politics in India over the next forty years decisively established the dominance of regional parties and caste as a mobilising force.
The Emergency propelled several political leaders long in political wilderness straight into office, and introduced the idea of an ‘opposition’ leader in the ruling structure. The Leader of the Opposition (through The Salary and Allowances of Leaders of Opposition in Parliament Act, 1977) emerged from the first non-Congress government that followed the first election after the Emergency. Thus, several leaders who harvested a political fortune opposing the Emergency quickly warmed to the possibility of privileging personal political power over party organisation. An enduring lesson India’s political classes imbibed silently was on the importance of keeping control over state media and the retention of the Emergency clause in the Constitution.
It is also important to remember that the Emergency doesn’t need to come back in its older avatar any more. It can achieve much more sinister results by breaking up into a thousand parts and unwittingly chip away at our rights.