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Authoritarianism in stealth is more dangerous than Emergency

Authoritarianism in stealth is more dangerous than Emergency

But this is in stark contrast to the authoritarianism of the current regime, which is disembowelling democracy and stripping governance of all vestiges of constitutional morality, by stealth.

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Last Updated : 25 June 2024, 00:34 IST
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For the past decade, India has seen the ruling regime reprise some of the worst excesses of the Emergency era. Few would have thought it would go a few steps further, but it did. To put the authoritarianism of the regime run by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah in proper perspective, let us briefly review the Emergency era.

On June 25, 1975, 49 years ago till date, an Emergency was declared on the grounds of internal dangers, ironically while the Emergency declared on account of the 1971 ‘Bangladesh War’ was still in force. It was occasioned by an Allahabad High Court judgement disqualifying Prime Minister Indira Gandhi from her membership of the Lok Sabha, due to electoral malpractices. She appealed the verdict, but the Supreme Court gave her conditional relief pending the final judgement. She was allowed to continue as a member of the House, but was forbidden from participating in any voting procedures. With her position rendered untenable, Gandhi decided to impose an Emergency rather than demit office pending the final judgement.

Draconian laws, horrifying actions

During the Emergency, practically all political opponents, imagined as well as real, were jailed, including the septuagenarian Jayaprakash Narayan and dissident members of her party, the Indian National Congress. Press censorship was rigorously imposed. The 42nd Amendment emasculated the judiciary. Draconian preventive detention legislation — the notorious Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) — was passed, along with the much-abused Conservation of Foreign Exchange and Prevention of Smuggling Activities Act (COFEPOSA). The elections slated for February-March 1976, were postponed, and the tenure of the Lok Sabha extended.

In the latter half of Emergency, which was relaxed in mid-January 1977 with the announcement of fresh elections but formally lifted after the elections, excesses multiplied, especially in the form of forced sterilisation and countrywide demolition programmes.

Suborning institutions

In all this, we must remember, Indira Gandhi largely followed legal procedures, which is not to say that her disembowelment of democracy and the cynical disregard of constitutional morality can in any way be extenuated. But this is in stark contrast to the authoritarianism of the current regime, which is disembowelling democracy and stripping governance of all vestiges of constitutional morality, by stealth.

Thus, it has suborned institutions backed by the impunity bestowed on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) by two clear electoral mandates, the second one with a huge majority. Even before changing the procedure of appointing election commissioners, including the chief election commissioner, it had made it toothless.

It tried to cow the judiciary even as it has hampered its functioning by blocking appointments and holding up promotions. Former Union Law Minister Kiren Rijiju disgraced himself by frontally assailing the judiciary over the striking down as unconstitutional of the National Judicial Appointments Commission, an attempt to enlarge the executive’s role in judicial appointments and promotions.

The current regime has beaten down the federal structure as well, again by stealth. It has done so mostly by refusing to apportion federal funds impartially. In many cases, it has just refused to give states their legitimate dues, simply because there has been no recourse for the federating units. This is a blunt instrument to appropriate the fiscal space of the opposition parties in a manner reminiscent of Indira Gandhi’s style of functioning. The misuse of federal law-enforcement agencies to chip away at the legitimate law-and-order jurisdiction of the states is also demonstrable.

Censorship by stealth

The most notable feature of this regime’s suborning of institutions is its attacks on the media, which has largely been reduced to a servile appendage of the regime. In 2012, before the regime came to power, India was 131st in RSF’s World Press Freedom Rankings. In 2024, India ranked 159th, up two places from 2023. The press has been cowed by preventive detention laws, as well as a sharp spike in attacks against dissentient journalists. Institutional pressures have also been brought to bear. This is not the upfront censorship of the Emergency period — which, to reiterate, was despicable — but censorship by stealth.

Even at the height of Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian rule, it has to be said, the Congress regime did not attempt to infiltrate all arenas by planting ideologues and hacks — even the ideas of a committed bureaucracy and judiciary fell short of this kind of infiltration.

The education sector stands out in this regard. Bastions of dissent, like the Jawaharlal Nehru University, were allowed to flourish even though they provided refuge to critical voices. Now, police action, infiltration by Hindu majoritarian staff, and the mutilation of curricula have combined not just to devalue education, but to turn them into factories for the dissemination of falsehoods and distorted narratives — especially in the social sciences and humanities. Natural science has not been spared. Basic science is under assault from pseudo-disciplines like Vedic science.

Infiltration and saffronisation might prove to be difficult to reverse and cause the nation, nation-state, and society the most lasting damage, even after the foot soldiers of the Hindu rashtra are voted out of power.

Strong leaders and rights

Those who experienced the Emergency will remember that large segments of the so-called educated middle and upper classes welcomed the authoritarian turn because, apparently, the rule of a ‘strong leader’ increases efficiencies in the way the public sphere functions — ‘trains run on time’ and ‘bureaucrats report to work punctually’ were common refrains. The abridgement of civil liberties and basic human rights was not seen to be a problem. It was only when the horrors of the Emergency came to light that many backtracked. We are now in a similar situation. The celebration of strong leaders is facilitating fascist rule and the promotion of the cult of vacuity.

While the educated and the prosperous celebrate dictatorship, it is left to the poor and the less educated to protect the only rights they have — the right to liberty and
the right to choose their leaders every five years. They have done so in the recently concluded general elections.

(The writer is the author of The Paradox of Populism: The Indira Gandhi Years, 1966-1977)

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