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The Emergency

A Watershed in India’s Politics

Arvind Rajagopal ( teaches at the New York University, United States.

Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point by Gyan Prakash, New Delhi: Penguin, 2018; pp 439, 400.


Although historians conceive their research as having a public use, large sections of the Indian public itself do not necessarily engage with their writing except perhaps to denounce one or other scholar every now and again.1This remains true in an age when historical arguments are increasingly prominent in social movements and in electoral battles. Witness, for example, the extent to which assessments of the Congress party’s historical record figure in campaign speeches. Meanwhile, popular culture has taken a historical turn in Indian cinema, for example, if only to bring it closer to the genre of the mythological.

Whatever the future has in store, at present history in India circulates principally to mobilise consent and consolidate opposition against naysayers of one kind or another. If so, inconvenient truths are more liable to be bracketed than explored or weighed. Acknowledging the mechanisms of popular consent, and the limits revealed by these mechanisms, would therefore be important in critical history writing.

The national Emergency of 1975–77 is often invoked to illustrate the indispensability of popular consent, as if India’s deviation from democracy is best understood by referring to this period, and as if the rest of post-independence history, notably the period under non-Congress rule, stood in striking contrast to it. For a historian identified with Subaltern Studies, however, in addition to the chance to correct such a characterisation, the Emergency presents another interesting problem. It brings together issues of statecraft and political intrigue, or history from above, with a people’s history from below. Whereas the former approach has been associated with elitist and nationalist historiography (the two are much the same, according to the Subaltern Studies’ manifesto of the 1980s), it is the latter that has won the historians their renown. A history of the Emergency thus presents an opportunity to correct the elitism of nationalist historiography, and to explore to what extent mechanisms of consent and coercion across elite and subaltern classes worked to maintain the balance of class/caste power, and how these mechanisms have shifted over time. It can also seek continuities across the periods into which the post-independence era has been divided, and review breaks such as the Emergency itself, to provide new perspectives on our historical present.

Conceptual Details

The book under review is without doubt the richest volume published so far on the Emergency, with an enviable command of archival and ethnographic material. It has a range of conceptual and historical references detailing the Emergency’s status as a significant event in postcolonial Indian history, marking the first major rise of populism after independence, as well as the first overtly authoritarian phase with respect to the nation as a whole. Readers of Economic & Political Weekly (EPW), to whom the Emergency is not news, will find much to learn in each of the chapters, about student politics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and the preventive detentions that followed, about Jayaprakash Narayan’s correspondence with Indira Gandhi and Maneka Gandhi’s poem written to her husband where she complains about him; from detailed interviews with officials who actually implemented the Emergency, such as deputy inspector general P S Bhinder in New Delhi, to the crucial role of Ford Foundation officials in coercive sterilisation. The book seeks to encompass the institutional logics that enabled the Emergency as well as provide some of its micro-histories. Written in a clear and engaging style, and seeking to minimise academic vocabulary, the book aims at enlarging the audience for Indian history, building on the growing interest that has been visible for some time.

As such, the main aim of this book is not to tackle prevailing assumptions and conventions in historical debates so much as to cultivate and nurture the taste for historical engagement and to deepen the educated public’s knowledge about the relevance of the period being examined. As such, despite the book’s success in achieving these aims, there are shortcomings, too. For example, EPW readers might still want to know where this book stands vis-à-vis other accounts of the Emergency, and what it adds to critical perspectives on recent history. Furthermore, the author provides little analysis of economic reforms and its relationship to state power (whether exercised by the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] or the Congress). Both of these issues deserve discussion.

Authoritarianism and populism, arguably two major aspects of the Emergency, resurface subsequently, but the Emergency represents their first combined appearance after independence, Gyan Prakash notes. He begins, in fact, by noting parallels with populist protests against corruption led by Anna Hazare, and the appearance of conservative populist leaders across the world, and suggests that the Emergency is related to those phenomena: “the intertwined shadows of populism and authoritarianism hanging over democracy in the present invite us to pay attention to the challenges it faced in the past” (p 6). But, rather than clarifying the Indian specifics of the “global history of democracy’s relationship with popular politics” (p 13), the thrust of the book seems to analytically gloss over them. Thus, if the 1975–77 Emergency became “democracy’s turning point,” the subtitle of the book, it is hard to tell exactly how the author understands it. Did democracy retreat thereafter, or did it flower? The author seems to say “yes” to both, without indicating how to reconcile this tension.

Today, it is virtually common sense that reforms had a positive impact on the (low) “Hindu growth rate” of the economy. Not only the economy, but Hindu assertion too grew thereafter. Everything that allegedly restrained this twin growth was condemned at the same time. The term “Hindu” switched from a negative to a positive value in the course of this process, one that was political–economic and cultural too.

Cost of Economic Reforms

After coming to power in 2014 the BJP has moved from nominally secular to openly communal party rule, and proceeded not only to take credit for the economic reforms built by the Congress, but also to demonise the Congress as if the latter had opposed reforms all along. So relentless and voluminous has this propaganda been, and so faint has been the counter to it, that a sizeable segment of the electorate may believe there is no opposing view.

It therefore bears noting that the economic reforms were initiated by the Congress, and that the political cost of the reforms was that of appeasing and aiding Hindutva. From the late 1980s onwards, the BJP led a mass movement to replace the Congress, which it denounced as “pseudo-secular,” supported by the growing numbers of the middle class and by big business. But meanwhile, apart from the communists, no major party, including the BJP, contested the reforms. Although the BJP and the Congress were at loggerheads over the right of Hindu militants to demolish the Babri Masjid, allegedly a reminder of Mughal vandalism, not a whisker’s breadth separated the two parties on questions of liberalisation. This was due in large part to the adroit mediation of then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao, who masterminded the reform process, and helped the Congress stay in office even as the political consensus shifted towards the BJP with the demolition.2

The unpunished destruction of Muslim lives and property while army battalions watched and cameras rolled, amidst the triumphant declaration of Hindu power demonstrated the emptiness of secularism for all to see. The Congress may have retained political power, but the levers of majority consensus shifted to the BJP.

These events receive cursory mention towards the end of Prakash’s book, although he is critical of the neo-liberal politics accompanying economic reforms in India. In other words, he omits the significance of the key trade-off between the leading parties that shaped India’s neo-liberalism. A more detailed discussion of reforms might have clarified the historical transition to the contemporary politics Prakash is critical of. But his preference for narrative over analysis in the end, risks leaving the prevailing consensus about recent history undisturbed. This consensus regards the Emergency as a heroic popular uprising that changed Indian politics forever. Prakash would like to argue that democracy thereafter took a turn. If it was for the worse, a reader could be forgiven for thinking the opposite, that the populist upsurge
was somehow continuous with economic reforms and for the accompanying nationalist assertion.

Nehruvian to Neo-liberal

As is well known, the Emergency marked the end of the Nehruvian era. Also, it concluded what L K Advani called the “political untouchability” of Hindutva, today represented by the BJP. The anti-Congress alliance made by Jayaprakash Narayan brought the party of Hindutva into government, and thus breached the multiparty agreement until that time, that Hindutva was anti-national.

In other words, two forms of consensus ended with the Emergency, or at any rate, began to transform radically. First, state claims of secularism began to be weighed in terms of their popularity, whereas the Nehru era was marked by its attempt to insulate institutions and democratic processes from majority sentiment. Thereafter, such attempts would be denounced as elitist and anti-people. Second, overtly coercive state intervention, notably but not only in economic development, became rarer and invited more severe backlash. Subsequently, state coercion seldom declared itself overtly, and worked instead through proxies. Although these outcomes are frequently analysed separately, political contingencies inseparably joined the two together.

Prakash himself links the Emergency and economic reforms, discussing Sanjay Gandhi’s notorious Maruti car project, a case of “crony capitalism … that failed”:

Maruti … was the opening shot aimed at the administrative and economic norms that had governed postcolonial India. Its determined violation of official norms, regulations and procedures threw open administrative protocols and planning priorities to a new set of practices. Sanjay’s doctrine of quick action empowered bureaucrats happy to oblige the powerful without regard for the governing norms of transparency, accountability and impartiality. (p 246)

It is a fleeting observation, and it is left unelaborated. But by calling Maruti an “opening shot,” Prakash suggests there was a Schumpeterian “creative destruction” exemplified in the project. Factors he may be implying here include entrepreneurial initiative, the growing market for durable consumer goods, and deregulation. However, all he says is that “administrative protocols and planning priorities” were opened “to a new set of practices,” of which he mentions only bureaucratic corruption.

We must banquet on the wafer Prakash offers us, for he is making a causal link between two key periods, the Emergency and economic reforms. Presumably, there is something more than arbitrary power to the former and corruption to the latter, but here he does not spell out what he thinks is involved. On the norms that governed postcolonial India he makes a terse remark on “the Nehruvian orthodoxy about planning and the public sector” (p 113), noting that it had become “rigid and doctrinaire” (p 112). He understands the reforms to illustrate a “neo-liberal logic, emerging as state policy in 1991” which “offers the market logic of winners and losers” (p 381). Beyond brief statements of this kind, we lack an analysis of either phase.

There are, very briefly, at least two historical links worth exploring, I suggest, between the Emergency and the period of reforms that are under-elaborated in Emergency Chronicles. First, although the Emergency led to suspension of civil liberties and democratic rights, it was reformist in its stated policies and in its self-representation. These reforms aimed at greater economic productivity, bureaucratic efficiency, and popular commitment to national development. We can call it an extension of the planning ethos, wherein the coercive core of economic planning was unsheathed and expanded, on the premise that the nation’s internal enemies were on the rise. In this specific sense it marked the high point of the Nehruvian period, when the political character of the economy could be asserted as a guiding principle for state intervention.

Thereafter, the economy began to be conceived as having its own enigmatic logic, for which ideas of market rationality and consumer demand became surrogates. Society rather than the state became the medium of economic reforms, because political intervention no longer issued from the old “commanding heights;” rather, it became diffuse and inconspicuous, and was ventriloquised through the market where possible.

The second link with the period of reforms is the following. The escalation of public coercion during the Emergency was a forerunner of what was to accompany economic reforms, but with a crucial difference. The state could identify itself as the operating agent in the first case. Thus, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting could advertise statements by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on family planning announcing: “We are determined to implement this programme with all the means at our command” (davp 75/596).3After the Emergency the agents of public coercion were more often non-state actors with latent political sanction, also at times operating in a blizzard of propaganda. That is, coercive state practices travelled outside the domain of the state and presented themselves as popular action. Unreformed Hindu upper-caste identities now had more overt state backing, but in a way that was designed to suggest that public consent was on their side.

The Most Important Outcome

Such blurring of the distinction between popular and state speech suggests continuities between the beef and cow vigilantes of today and the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992, and highlights the contrast with the Emergency. Displays of popular consent and of state coercion, often starkly opposed through the time of the Emergency, increasingly overlapped thereafter. Crucial for this development were the communication infrastructures conceived and installed for secular national development, including national television. This was no accident. In a way, it was the most important outcome of the Emergency.

In the year before the Emergency, labour leader George Fernandes was able to threaten to bring the government to its knees with a railway strike, one that turned out to be the largest in the history of organised labour. The strike was brutally crushed, but it lasted for 20 days. It showed how labour could galvanise the government, if only briefly, with demands that were in fact extremely modest.4The strike unfolded in a political context centred on questions of the economy, and government management thereof. Unions had a place at the table in this context; labour leaders could go on to become national leaders, as Fernandes himself did. This decisively changed after the Emergency.

Strikes and all other kinds of labour-led action against management reduced sharply, and turned into an increasingly symbolic affair. Token one-day strikes became more customary, and meanwhile the government ceased to rush to arbitrate disputes. Alongside, communal riots grew rapidly, specifically, mass violence against Muslims, practised with impunity and crafted to yield electoral dividends.5

Consumption and Culture

After the Emergency, the symbolic centre of national identity gradually moved from the sphere of production to that of consumption, from the economy to that of culture. Embattled labour, and rising Hindu miltancy represented the main cross-currents in the politics of the time, signalled by the decline of Datta Samant and the rise of Bal Thackeray respectively. Defeat came to the labour leader who demanded that unions with majority support should be recognised, while victory attended the demagogue who declared Hindu rights to be superior to that of minorities.

This change reflected the post-Emergency strategy of the ruling Congress party once it returned to power in 1980 and the lessons it chose to learn from the Emergency. The rapidly expanding communications infrastructure presented powerful means to mix consent with coercion. State directives could now appear as soft power, working through suggestion and repetition rather than the force of arms. In such a context what appeared like public expression could merely reiterate state speech, rather than represent people speaking back to the state.

Thus, the conditions for economic reforms were created well before the formal onset of liberalisation in 1991. Readers will recollect that Rajiv Gandhi’s New Economic Plan of 1985 attempted but failed to institute reforms, due to domestic resistance. The advance of Hindutva, operating in the unorganised sector, and the marginalisation of unions, overwhelmingly in the organised sector, provides a framework highlighting the political colour of economic reforms as they took shape. Unpunished mass violence against Muslims and other minorities provided the illiberal obbligato to announcements of liberalisation. The Emergency was not, therefore, the “opening shot,” at the norms hitherto governing postcolonial India, as Prakash argues; it was, rather, the last waltz of the Nehru era.

The reforms drew enormous strength from the changing international context, specifically, the crumbling of the East Bloc, which Indian pundits, among them prominent businessmen, were quick to diagnose as the defeat not only of Soviet socialism, but of Indian government planning, as if India too had been labouring under an authoritarian socialist regime.6A columnist writing for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh magazine Organiser, Jay Dubashi, spelt out what he saw as the Indian link to the Cold War, writing in November 1989:

[T]he very same day the first brick of the Ram Shila Foundation was being laid at Ayodhya, the Berliners were removing bricks from the Berlin Wall. While a temple was going up in Ayodhya, a communist temple was being demolished five thousand miles away in Europe. If this is not history I do not know what is.7

Secularism and Nehruvianism were one and the same thing, in this view, and the credit for dispatching them both went to the BJP. This was a development whose conditions of possibility were created by the Emergency. By writing itself into world history (the fall of the Berlin Wall anticipating the fall of Babri Masjid) and marking itself as the party of both the Hindu majority and of market reform, the BJP wrote a narrative that, paradoxically, provides both the state perspective as well as that of its opponents. Hence, the movement against the Emergency provided the opening shot of Hindutva in mainstream Indian politics. It became the basis of their claim that they stood for people’s resistance against arbitrary power, although they were conspicuously absent in the anti-colonial struggle.

Without an analysis of the political balance of forces before and afterwards, a deep dive into the Emergency, while offering fascinating stories of power and resistance, does not provide insights into our historical present. If Hindutva represents the Indian form of authoritarian populism, indicating on virtually the penultimate page that it is “fundamentally antidemocratic” (p 380) feels like too little, too late. The long history of Hindutva and its all-too-recent success in enfolding large numbers of urban professional classes get little attention. Prakash’s main interest is in the Emergency itself; discussions of its wider significance for Indian history are highly compressed, ending with warnings about the Narendra Modi government exercising emergency powers in all but name. With such an approach, there is little chance of re-evaluating prevalent perceptions or uncovering paths not taken, that might yet inform future politics. Despite Prakash’s admonitions to the contrary, this history of the Emergency can be enjoyed as a self-contained episode, with a modicum of moralising. The philosophy of history hinted at here is perhaps one where historians cannot really change anything.

Prakash maybe right, but I would hate to think he is.


1 Dipesh Chakrabarty notes this issue in his essay “The Public Life of History,” Public Culture, Vol 20, No 1, p 144.

2 Vinay Sitapati focuses on the reform process in his Half-Lion: How P V Narasimha Rao Transformed India (Penguin, New Delhi, 2016). I argue for its connection to Hindutva in Politics after Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Public in India (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2001), for example, Chapters 1 and 4.

3 I have discussed this and other examples at greater length in my essay, “The Emergency as Prehistory of the New Indian Middle Class,” Modern Asian Studies, 45, 5, 2011, pp 1003–49.

4 Stephen Sherlock, The Indian Railways Strike of 1974: A Study of Power and Organised Labour, Rupa & Co, New Delhi, 2001.

5 “The Emergency as Prehistory.”

6 For example, J R D Tata, “Berlin Walls Should Fall,” Times of India, 1 August 1991, p 1; Ramkrishna Bajaj, “Socialism’s Anti-consumer-bias,” Times of India, 16 May 1991, p 15; Ashok V Chowgule, “Answer to Greed,” Times of India, 23 February 1992, p 12.

7 Jay Dubashi, “From ‘Shilanyas’ to Berlin Wall,” Organiser, 26 November 1989. Rpt in Jay Dubashi, The Road to Ayodhya (Voice of India Publications, New Delhi, 1992), p 18.

Updated On : 31st May, 2019


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