Ruminations: Idea of Emergency
The perception that India is not insulated against an ‘emergency-like’ situation is worrying

For all too often in the past few months, more so since the Bharatiya Janata Party's round of emphatic election victories, the opposition has referred to an emergency-like situation in the country. The accusations remain general but are linked, through a string of instances – some of them seen as attacks against those who have stood up to the ruling establishment – as attempts to establish an authoritarian regime.

What comprises the trigger to suggest the existence of an emergency-like situation? Accusations run thick and fast. A raid by the Central Bureau of Investigation on a media house owner is a reminder to the emergency. The arrest of a university students' union leader is like emergency. Demonetisation is akin to financial emergency. A case involving the first family of India's principal opposition party is emergency like. There are many such instances. That a strong prime minister who is a compelling orator is at the helm surely does not serve to quell the argument. Perhaps there are similarities between then and now, like a powerful leader at the head of a strong government – Indira Gandhi after 1971 and Narendra Modi after 2014.

Perhaps some of those who use the words so loosely are unable to understand what an emergency entails. For others, it comes from a distrust of the easy manner in which momentous decisions are taken.

And there is a history to that. For instance, how on the night of June 25, 1975, Indira Gandhi prevailed upon the President to issue the emergency proclamation that very night, “however late it may be” even though she had not consulted the cabinet. Pranab Mukherjee, who was in Kolkata on June 26 for his Rajya Sabha election, writes in his autobiography, ‘The dramatic decade, the Indira Gandhi years’, that when he was confronted with suggestions that Indira Gandhi had abrogated the constitution and usurped power, he had explained that everything was in order.

To use his words, “I corrected these prophets of doom, saying that the emergency had been declared according to the provisions of the Constitution rather than in spite of it. I argued that if the Constitution had indeed been abrogated, why would the Rajya Sabha election take place at all? The logic worked and people started to see reason.”

Nowhere in the book is there a suggestion of contrition. The word ‘excesses’ in reference to the emergency is invariably within quote marks. For the record, only the Communist Party of India, which had supported the emergency, has now described the decision to support the emergency as a blunder. It has said it can never happen again because the roots of democracy run deep.

Talk about a so-called undeclared emergency started around the time of the intolerance debate in 2015. While the latter issue ran out of steam by the end of the year, this has not been the case with the former. It is moving alongside new challenges faced by the government. Invincible Modi is now facing a pared down GDP growth rate, the Kashmir problem, farmers' issues, cow politics, a retraction in employment and a challenging environment on the foreign affairs front.

Where Modi himself may have faltered in shutting out the accusations of engendering an emergency-like situation is in his reluctance to reach out and provide a balm in all troubled situations – even though he has succeeded whenever he has tried to. As a case in point, the Prime Minister’s reference to Rohith Vemula during his convocation address at Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University in Lucknow early last year – saying, emotionally, that a mother had lost her son and he understood the pain – had the immediate effect of lowering temperatures at Hyderabad University where a student agitation was in full swing following the Dalit scholar’s death.

For Modi not to employ his connect with the masses to better use might have to do with the assessment that his challenges will not be serious and it will be generally plain sailing for this government. But political fortunes are never static. Situations alter, people change. This will be an intangible to deal with for those in the establishment and their supporters who expect that there should exist a single worldview (theirs) and those who differ would have to suffer. The perception of an emergency-like situation leads from this. It also leads on from another interpretation of power equations between the ruling establishment: that strong institutions are those that stand up to opposition criticism and not necessarily ones that should also stand up to

pressure from the government. While, as the CPI says, the roots of democracy in India run deep, it also needs to be borne in mind that state power is supreme. It involves every arm of the government and has the capacity to subjugate all who do not toe a line. A declaration of emergency may no longer be possible or attempted by any government, but the perception – even if held by a small and vocal group – that India is not insulated for all time against an ‘emergency-like’ situation is worrying and must be demolished.

Ananda Majumdar