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A Road Map of Change in Democracy

Gyan Prakash ( teaches at Princeton University, United States.

The author of Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point responds to Arvind Rajagopal’s review of his book published in EPW (1 June 2019), “The Emergency: A Watershed in India’s Politics.”

I am thankful to Arvind Rajagopal for his deeply engaged review of my book, Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point in EPW (1 June 2019). I also appreciate that he thinks that it is “without doubt the richest volume published so far on the Emergency” (p 23). However, I must regi­ster my disagreements with some of the criticisms and judgments he offers in a spirit of serious engagement that so clearly animates his review.

Rajagopal writes that although the subtitle of the book depicts the Emergency as democracy’s turning point,

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. (p 24)

A little later he returns again to my failure to give a clear answer to this yes or no question, suggesting that my preference of narrative over analysis prevents me from disturbing the prevailing consensus that

regards the (resistance to 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. (p 24)

I plead guilty to the charge that I fail to satisfy Rajagopal’s demand to know whether democracy took a turn for the good or bad after 1975–77.

Instead of rendering a moral judgment, I suggest that democracy took a different turn. I will not rehearse the book’s argument here, except to restate its contention that the Emergency’s end opened the doors for caste and Hindutva populism. The events in the following decades were not preordained, but state–society relations did change. With the coercive Emergency regime’s failure to secure the consent of the Indian citizenry, the Other Backward Classes and Hindu nationalist mobilisations rose to surface in democratic politics. This is also when a shift to market-oriented neo-liberal reforms emer­ged as a possibility.

Preparing for 1991

With regard to the “turning point,” Rajagopal cites the book’s argument that Sanjay Gandhi’s Maruti project was not only a case of crony capitalism but also an “opening shot aimed at the administrative and economic norms that had governed postcolonial India.” I then go on to argue in the book that Maruti opened the way for the subsequent market-based neo-liberalism, enshrined fully in the 1991 reforms under Narasimha Rao. Of course, a lot had to happen ­between 1975–77 and 1991. Rajagopal men­tions some of these changes—the dislodgement of the state from the “commanding heights” of the economy, Rajiv Gandhi’s New Economic Plan of 1985, the exaltation of the market and a new consumer culture, and the advance of Hindutva. But, from this listing of the ­developments between 1977 and 1991, he concludes: “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” (p 25).

I have two points to make regarding this. First, Rajagopal’s comment about the “opening shot” conflates the Maruti project and the Emergency. Nowhere in the book do I state that the Emergency was the “opening shot” on the Nehruvian economy. I attribute that to Maruti. In fact, Sanjay Gandhi’s small car project started years before the Emergency; he later took advantage of the coercive ­regime to chip away at the Nehruvian economic priorities. If his bag of tricks did not fully include “entrepreneurial initiative, the growing market for durable consumer goods, and deregulation” (p 24) that Rajagopal deems necessary for neo-liberalism, such is the nature of an “opening shot.” Sanjay’s project failed, but he ­deli­vered a critical blow to the planned economy by instilling the desire for an affordable and technologically modern, “people’s car.” When Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980, she shed her socialist rhetoric, launched Maruti Udyog in Sanjay’s memory in 1981, and adopted, as Atul Kohli has shown, pro-business policies that prepared for 1991.

Second, perhaps Rajagopal gets so caught up in his rhetorical flourish about the Emergency being “the last waltz of the Nehru era” that he fails to notice that it is precisely my book’s argument. Contrary to the received consensus, I suggest that the Emergency was not a sudden irruption but an attempt to resolve a crisis of both Indira Gandhi’s personal power and the postcolonial economic and political project. I write: “In this sense, the imposition of the Emergency was a last-ditch attempt to rescue the postcolonial project” (p 364). To substantiate this claim, my book retraces India’s political and constitutional his­tory since 1947, and suggests that the JP (Jayaprakash) movement and the Allahabad High Court judgment of 12 June 1975 turned the long-brewing crisis into a personal one for Indira Gandhi. Her response was to impose Emergency, and use coercive political and economic means to recover from the failures of the postcolonial regime. Referring to ramping up of the family planning and urban clearance schemes, which were part of the postcolonial projects of development, I write: “It is against this background of failure that the Emergency appears as a last-ditch attempt to salvage with exceptional means the global and elite-driven projects of modernisation” (p 303).


Finally, the running strain in the review, privileging the narrative over analysis, is that I do not delve deep into the politics and eco­nomy of the 1990s and later. In particular, the reviewer wishes that I had provided a fuller ­account of the economic reforms and its political costs, including the Hindutva politics that led to the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the transformation of the political space. My book is on the Emergency, its historical conditions of possibility, and the ­politics and economy that it opened paths for. Rajagopal is free to hold the opinion that “this history of the Emergency can be enjoyed as a self-contained episode” (p 26). But this opinion has to contend with the stark evidence to the contrary. My book analyses 1975–77 in the long durée of India’s postcolonial history since 1947, and provides an ­account of how the Emergency represents the end of a phase and the beginning of a new phase of India’s demo­cratic experience. My book ends in 1984, pointing to how we can understand the present in light of the road map of change in democracy opened by the turning point of the Emergency. If Rajagopal wants to flesh out my argument about how the Emergency opened ways for neo-liberal economic reforms and Hindutva politics during the 1980s and the 1990s, he is welcome to write that book. I would gladly read and enjoy it without asking if demo­cracy retreated or flowered but only how it was transfor­med by neo-
liberal politics and economics.

Updated On : 21st Jun, 2019


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