We normally get to hear the President of India speak on three formal occasions: On the eve of the Republic Day and Independence Day, and at the joint session of both Houses of Parliament marking the start of the Budget Session. The President also speaks on other platforms. But what marks all these speeches is their standardised nature—they either list the priorities and achievements of the government of the day or are exhortations to select audiences on specific subjects. Which is why the publication of the first of his three volume memoirs by Pranab Mukherjee was interesting: It was the first by a President while still in office. More intriguingly, it dealt with his first 15 years in Lutyens’ Delhi during the Indira Gandhi era.
Of particular interest to my generation, which received its political education from the Emergency years, is his analysis and understanding of the Emergency—the events that led to it, the rationale and the happenings during the period, and the political resurrection of Gandhi in the post-Emergency years. Even today, 40 years on, I remember the morning of March 21, 1977, when a captive All India Radio (AIR) and Doordarshan had to admit that Gandhi and her Congress Party had been decisively routed in the polls. At a juncture now in the country’s and world’s history when strong personalities bestride the political scene and when the tenets of liberal democracy are being questioned by the inhabitants of such democracies, there is a need to understand the social forces at work and what these imply for India. A comparison of the 1975-77 India and her offspring of 2017 brings out the bright and dark sides of present-day India and enable possible prognostications of what the future holds for us.
(1) The educated middle class expansion and its implications: Post-1991, the middle class population has grown significantly and is engaged in a variety of occupations. The 1975 middle class was largely employed in government service. The present-day middle class Indian could be an entrepreneur, one who works in the organised private sector or is self-employed, often one with global footprints. She has had access to better education, is far more aware of thought currents across the globe, and has many more avenues to express herself openly. And yet, the educated middle class is today far more susceptible to the allurements of narrow nationalism, jingoistic pride and intolerance of the views of others. The ideals that guided the framers of the Constitution find little resonance with the millennials. The technocratic world view has little patience for liberal, humanistic values. It is little wonder then that liberal democracy is facing an existential crisis.
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(2) The explosion in mass media: Freedom of expression has been facilitated by the internet revolution and humongous growth in electronic and social media. Those of us who had just AIR and Doordarshan for meeting our information needs during the Emergency find the current Babel Tower of the electronic media refreshing, even if somewhat irritating at times. Twitter trolls notwithstanding, there is opportunity for every Indian with digital access to put forth her views. And yet, the flip side can be disquieting. While print media in the past was privately owned, big business has now come to dominate both print and electronic media. Editors and news managers are under increasing pressure to conform to the business interests of their owners. The dissemination of news is also coming to resemble Twenty20 cricket, with inexperienced reporters excitedly putting forth garbled versions of the true picture. Even more dismaying is the tendency of news anchors functioning as judge, jury and executioner.
(3) The Big Brother syndrome—I am the State: We are in the era of the strong man, whether in India, Russia, the US, Turkey or the Philippines. Gandhi in 1975 was strong in her own right but she did not have the wide, rapturous acceptance of her predominant position that a Narendra Modi enjoys today. The problem is that the person, party, state and nation are today all seen through the same prism. Criticism of any one of these is seen as opposition to the nation-state. An aura of invincibility is sought to be created around the superman, using the media and capitalising on an ineffectual political opposition. It is true that, unlike 1975, when Tamil Nadu was probably the only prominent non-Congress state, today’s political scene is marked by a multiplicity of parties, especially regional formations, ruling in different states. Many of them are often hostile to the ruling party at the Centre. However, with power and money rather than principles and convictions being the bases for political conduct, there is no certainty about the opposition either.
(4) Diversity—of language, customs and religion: Running a subcontinent of India’s size and heterogeneity is no easy business, more so for a centralised, authoritarian government, as Gandhi found to her cost in 1977. The multiplicity of tongues, religious beliefs and customs, cultural and dietary patterns render the enforcement of a uniform, majoritarian world view well-nigh impossible. But now, efforts are being made to impose straitjacketed versions of history, culture and ideas that are drawn from the Gangetic plains. Conformity with the majoritarian mindset is sought to be ensured through indoctrination, legislation and government action and, where these prove inadequate, through resort to vigilante action, whether to dictate what women can wear and do or what people can eat, see and talk.
(5) Institutional capture: The first attempts by the government of the day to bend institutions of democracy to its whims and fancies started in 1975 with the supersession of judges of the Supreme Court and the enunciation of the concept of a committed bureaucracy, apart from crude efforts to muzzle the media. History seems to be coming full circle, with steps being taken to exert the influence of the political executive on appointments to the higher judiciary and with no clear system being adopted for appointments to the elite bureaucracy. Institutions of higher learning and statutory bodies are being packed with appointees beholden to the reigning political order.
It is impossible (and highly risky) to hazard any definite conclusions about the likely direction of politics in India in the coming decades. Inferences can at best be drawn from the straws in the wind as revealed by the actions of the government. In totting up the balance sheet for India’s political system, what gives cause for comfort is the resilience of the people and their refusal to tolerate incompetent, corrupt and authoritarian behaviour on the part of those elected. In the first volume of his memoirs, Mukherjee has glossed over the rationale behind the Emergency, apart from sticking to the usual Congress line of opposition indiscipline, unrest and the call for the resignation of the Prime Minister—having been a loyal Congressman for most of his life, it would be too much to expect him to frankly analyse the inner motivations of the primary actor in first imposing the Emergency and then calling for elections that led to its end. What is important is whether, 40 years hence, we understand the significance of a functioning democracy and the rules and conventions by which it should operate. Sadly, we, the so-called “thinking class”, are ready to hand over our powers (and freedoms) in our quest for security and certainty, forgetting that democracy is eternally a story that is in the making. It is we, the citizens of India, who have to write that story, learning from past mistakes. Else, there will be need to revert to a perennially favourite quote of mine: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
The author is partner, Access Advisory. Views are personal