Arun Jaitley, minister without portfolio, in his Facebook post, the only place where he can make notings till allowed by doctors to move beyond sanitised environs, compared Indira Gandhi to Adolf Hitler. He was followed, in a rare instance within his political fraternity of someone else (besides the PM) initiating a diatribe against members of the Nehru-Gandhi parivar, by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with his speech in Mumbai. In response, Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala likened Mr Modi to Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. It has been a week when BJP and Congress leaders have used similar words to convey analogous opinion to depict two different situations. The BJP used a set of ideas and concepts to talk about the 1975-77 Emergency with unexpected fervour on its 43rd anniversary. Had it not been for the pressure of losing sheen telling on the BJP and Mr Modi, this time-marker would likely have been glossed over as historical occasions are recalled with gusto only when anniversaries fall in multiples of five or 10. The BJP’s stridency against the Congress, in sharp contrast to its previous strategy of mocking the party and its leaders, is indicative of a deepening worry.
The Congress too resorted to using the same type of metaphors and similes to say that the country has witnessed an “undeclared Emergency” in the past 49 months. Because the Hitler analogy was used up by the BJP, the Congress, for inexplicable reasons, picked on a historical figure denigrated severely by the Sangh Parivar to draw comparisons with the Prime Minister. Strangely enough, in this week of trading of charges and counter-charges and comparing Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi to historical personalities who evoke demonic memories, both sides missed out on what should have been the most obvious comparison — between Narendra Modi and Indira Gandhi. This is due to the political discourse being polarised — with Mr Modi or against him — despite India’s political multi-polarity. Consequently, even those who may otherwise in private liken Mr Modi to Indira Gandhi refrain from doing so in public for fear of alienating any present or potential ally.
In late 2014, when Manohar Lal Khattar, a nondescript former RSS apparatchik, was appointed Haryana chief minister, many recalled a noted R.K. Laxman cartoon which was somewhat like this. In sequential boxes, it showed Indira Gandhi being accorded a guard of honour by Nehru-jacket and Gandhi-cap clad political leaders, obviously of her party. She stopped before one and pointed a finger at him. Laxman’s acerbic words were at the bottom: “Hey you, out there. Your are the next chief minister... What’s your name?” Even though the gungi guriya turned India’s Iron Lady did not exactly appoint people as chief ministers without knowing their names, the fact remains that several selections in the period after her 1980 comeback were of largely inconspicuous leaders. In 2014, matters were no different in Maharashtra and Jharkhand too, and the BJP picked largely unknown party leaders as chief ministers at Mr Modi’s behest. The choices confirmed what many believed — that Mr Modi’s persona bore a striking resemblance to Indira Gandhi’s.
Propensity to handpick political nobodies in key positions, undermining democratic processes within their own parties, a soft corner for sycophants and elevating them to crucial positions, over-centralisation of governance with the Prime Minister’s Office run by supine bureaucrats as an all-powerful behemoth, unbridled dislike of an independent judiciary and the media, scant regard to dissent, accusing adversaries of conspiring to overthrow the regime or destabilising the nation — these are traits common to both. Does this mean that what we are witnessing in India is akin to Emergency Version II?
However, looking for echoes of the Emergency is inappropriate not just because the times are different but also because the objectives are entirely different. While previously it was all about cementing personal power and ensuring that the judiciary did not unseat the Prime Minister, the present situation is motivated by a desire to lay the foundation stones that can pave the way for a more majoritarian society. Moreover, the Emergency was an episode where constitutional provisions were misused by Indira Gandhi to suspend fundamental rights. In the past 49 months, and it continues unabated, something far more weighty is unspooling. The government has not suspended any right or curbed the freedom of expression but has whipped up sentiments among large sections of people who support this government and believe that being contrarian is a crime. There is no official proscription, but questioning any government decision or viewing national narratives differently from the ruling party is considered anti-national. Protesting against anything official is blasphemous.
It must also not be missed that the week of the Emergency anniversary is the one where Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was re-elected in an election that followed last year’s narrowly-won referendum wherein he secured a mandate to embark on an imperial presidency. People in several countries are increasingly backing strongmen who delegitimise adversaries by making promises unlikely to be met. In India, historically, there has been a strong sentiment in favour of powerful leaders. There are several leaders who are authoritarian in their own way. These chief ministers or heads of parties run these states or outfits with the same controls that they deny Mr Modi. But this does not justify the BJP’s pursuit of a majoritarian and hegemonic socio-political order because of its deeply divisive ideology.
It was to Jawaharlal Nehru’s credit that despite the national movement creating a messiah in Mahatma Gandhi, he did not fashion himself as one and chose to be an inclusive Prime Minister. He had shortcomings, including conferring the Bharat Ratna on himself, but he did not undermine India’s or the Congress Party’s federal character. In contrast, Indira Gandhi shaped herself as a messiah, as did several others who followed — Jayaprakash Narayan, V.P. Singh and now Narendra Modi. Every anniversary of the Emergency is an occasion to comprehend that a messianic polity shatters India’s plurality and enables authoritarian leaders to limit free choice in every sphere of life.