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Did you know there’s a part of the Constitution that’s at least 2,500 years old?

No matter the claims of the Nazi and Communist regimes, a dictator is still one who is exercising constitutional powers in a difficult time, for a limited period. But what do we call someone who completely discards the idea of a constitution or laws limiting their rule?
Last Updated 02 March 2024, 21:15 IST

The part of the Constitution I’m talking about deals with ‘Emergency Powers’, and it dates back to the Roman Republic. When the Republic faced a serious existential crisis, such as a foreign invasion or civil war, the two consuls who ruled Rome would temporarily hand over power to one man who would exercise near-absolute power until the crisis was over. This office, which existed only in times of crisis, was called “Dictator”.

Today, the term is used and misused for anyone from a slightly difficult family member to a megalomaniacal ruler, but “dictator” was originally used in a limited and specific context -- a person who had been temporarily given absolute power to address an emergency. The most famous Roman dictator you’ve likely heard of is Julius Caesar, but more on him later.

Karl Marx also used the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” saying it was needed temporarily to bring about the complete dismantling of the State and usher in the Communist utopia he wrote about. Of course, in reality, the several Communist regimes around the world only created bigger and bigger governments during their regime, which proved to be their downfall.

Adolf Hitler also took the powers of a dictator under the Weimar Republic constitution citing the Reichstag fire incident. The Weimar constitution allowed the suspension of civil liberties and other parts of the constitution in response to a “serious disturbance”. However, after the rigged and manipulated elections that followed, Hitler got the German parliament to put an end to the Weimar constitution itself, effectively giving him complete power to make and end laws. Ironically, one of the leading constitutional experts on the Weimar constitution, Carl Schmitt, who had pointed out the problem with the dictatorial powers under that constitution, would go on to justify Hitler’s power grab as a ‘dictatorship’ necessary to save the German people.

So how does this get reflected in the Constitution of India?

Part XIX of the Constitution provides for three different kinds of emergency situations (including President’s Rule under Article 356) but the ultimate emergency power under Article 352, when fundamental rights are suspended and the Union can completely ignore federal concerns, is the one that’s usually called “the Emergency”. It has been invoked on three occasions. It was first invoked during the 1962 India-China War, and then during the 1971 war with Pakistan. Of course, it was most (in)famously declared in 1975 by Indira Gandhi’s government for a period of 19 months. It hasn’t been used since.

An Emergency under Article 352 lasts for only a period of six months unless it’s extended by parliament. Speaking in strictly constitutional terms, therefore, only Indira Gandhi and Nehru exercised such “dictatorial” powers.

No matter the claims of the Nazi and Communist regimes, a dictator is still one who is exercising constitutional powers in a difficult time, for a limited period. But what do we call someone who completely discards the idea of a constitution or laws limiting their rule?

The ancient Romans had a word for that as well -- tyrant. A tyrant believes there are no limits to his or her power as ruler. The ancient Romans’ dislike of tyrants was so great that when Rome’s Senators (the equivalent of today’s MPs) sensed Julius Caesar’s ambition to crown himself Emperor (by removing time limits on his dictatorship), they – many of them his closest associates and friends (et tu, Brutus?) -- assassinated him, resulting in a civil war.

Why does knowing the difference between a dictator and a tyrant matter today?

It helps us to see through the illusions that rulers want to peddle about themselves. Understanding these distinctions tell us why Xi Jinping is different from his predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. Hu and Jiang may be called Communist ‘dictators’ who functioned under the Communist Party-written constitution, including accepting the two-term limit. Xi does not believe in any limits on his power and sees the law as just an instrument for him to exercise, not something that binds him. He has removed the constitutional limit of two terms in power so he can reign for as long as he wishes.

One could say the same of Vladimir Putin. And Xi and Putin have used the law and law-enforcing agencies under their command to destroy all challengers, building Opposition-mukt political playfields for themselves, while they are themselves above the law.

The lesson from the fall of the Roman Republic, the Weimar Republic and others around the world perhaps is that people should be vigilant against the rise of tyrants in their midst; that the rule of law and constitutional governance are values worth defending and preserving no matter how seductive the charms of despots and tyrants who promise “results” and “glory”.

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(Published 02 March 2024, 21:15 IST)

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