Friday, June 25, 2010


On June 25, 1975, the people of India had their first brush with dictatorship. Ironically, this 'coup' was executed by the very person who had sworn to protect democracy and the constitution. Indira Gandhi, the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, stunned by an Allahabad High Court verdict that found her guilty of violation of electoral laws, decided that she was bigger than the the law of the land. So, she staged a bloodless coup against the democratically elected Prime Minister that she was, and became India's first dictator.

Much credit has been given to her for holding elections in 1977 and then smoothly handing over power after she was voted out by the people. Perhaps some of it is deserved. But, it needs to be remembered that she went in for elections only after she was reportedly assured by the IB and others that she would win. However, when defeat shocked her, she was reluctant to hand over power to the Janata Party; that was her arrogance. She reportedly turned to Army Chief, Gen TN Raina, a fellow Kahmir Pandit, who she had chosen over the senior and much more distinguished Lt Gen PS Bhagat for the top job, and asked him to take over. Nehru's daughter asking the Army to take over India so that another politician did not! Couldn't be worse, could it? Fortunately for India, Raina refused. The rest, as everyone says, is history.

The Emergency was also India's first brush with the tyranny of the Nehru-Gandhi family. Indira Gandhi drafted her younger son, Sanjay Gandhi, who later died when the plane he was flying crashed into a tree, to help her run India with an iron fist and, boy, the duo took over the country and the Congress party completely. Their power was near absolute. Within the Congress, no one had the courage to utter a word against them; opposition leaders who did were put in jail; the media simply crawled.

As a result of the terror that the mother-son duo unleashed, and as often happens with despots, they were told by sycophants just what they wanted to hear. But in 1977, the people told them what they should have been hearing: how hateful their rule, their excesses had been, and how unacceptable. The tidal wave of public anger, particularly in North India where the Emergency really hit hard, was so huge that Indira Gandhi was defeated in her own constituency by a midget called Raj Narain.

Much has been written about what happened during the two dark years that the Emergency remained in force, and little purpose will be served by repeating it here. What is of real relevance now is whether the right lessons have been learnt and whether there is any danger of another politician placing himself/herself above everything else in the manner that Indira Gandhi did.

How much has really changed in the last 35 years? Is the Congress party more democratic now after that painful experience? Have its leaders developed a spine or are they still supine? Has the media, now free and more powerful than ever, learnt at at last to walk or has the gangrene that had set in then led to amputation of vitals? Have political opponents of the Congress learnt their lessons or has the experience of power corrupted them too and turned them into poor clones of the Congress, no longer real alternatives that can give a new direction and purpose to governance and to the nation?

The answers to the above questions are reasonably clear. In fact Family tyranny has got even stronger; don’t let the soft edges and the media spin fool you. Consider the following:
  • Then the Congress was run by Indira Gandhi her son Sanjay Gandhi; today it is by Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi.
  • Sonia Gandhi has already been Congress President longer than Nehru and Indira ever were. To make matters worse, there is not even a whisper of a demand either in the party or in the media to revive democracy in the party and give other leaders a chance to rise to the top. Sonia is now effectively Congress President for life. This is something unheard of in any political party in any democracy in the world. If this is the example that the GOP is setting, democracy is sure headed to death.
  • Sonia Gandhi may not be PM but she is far more powerful than the PM whose authority has been even further eroded -- manifestly to ward of any threat or challenge to her -- by a magical instrument known as the Group of Ministers (GOM) that is routinely tasked to take major decisions, shielding her from criticism but not credit, to ensure that only what she wants is done, but without being held accountable should anything go wrong.
  • Sonia Gandhi is the Supreme Commander of a government democratically elected by the people but she does not speak to them directly or even through the press. Natives of the party are left to do all the explaining and blame-taking. Even Indira Gandhi was never so arrogant and aloof.
  • No one in the Congress party can utter a word against any member of the Family, living or dead, out of fear. It is above and beyond criticism. Like God.
  • Surprisingly, almost no one in the opposition too criticises the Family. Manifestly that too is out of fear. The Congress has blatantly misused the CBI and other state instruments to tap phones and use other means to ferret out incriminating information about political leaders. That was apparently the sole achievement of the previous NSA. With corruption having reached unprecedented proportions and honest political leaders nearing extinction, most know that they are vulnerable. Blackmail, or the threat of it, is the new password that seals everyone's lips. Of course, everyone is allowed to hammer and make fun of Dr Manmohan Singh; that keeps everyone happy and undamaged. Even Nehru and Indira, tall leaders, were never so exalted.
  • The media crawls without having to be even told, eagerly. The rules of the game are clear, crossing of the Lakshman Rekha means swift and silent banishment to obscurity. Media is now big business with big money at stake. Makes eminent sense to keep the government on the right side and put the Family in the Pulpit. With corruption levels in the media now at par with those in the political class, vulnerability to blackmail and harassment is also as high. So, the Family has to be out of bounds for everything except reverence. No surprise that the anniversary of the Emergency has been blacked out. The new generation should not get ideas hostile to the Congress even in short attention span it has.
The the manner in which the furore over the duping of the victims of the Bhopal Gas disaster of 1984 has been handled by the government has dramatically underscored yet again the harsh truth that the Family is now totally beyond the pale of criticism. What started off as one $15 billion compensation suit in the US -- more to follow -- was turned into a paltry $475 million deal by the Rajiv Government with Union Carbide, Rs 30,000 for the dead and Rs 8000 for the injured. Billions would undoubtedly have been paid as bribe to top Congress leaders by Union Carbide for being let off the hook so unbelievably cheaply, over the dead and dying. But this scam, many times bigger than the Bofors one that brought Rajiv down in 1989, has been buried with exceptional haste. Rajiv Gandhi has been swiftly proved innocent of any wrongdoing in the gas disaster, not only by a pliant Group of Ministers who real job was to do that, but by almost the whole mainstream media, with leading journalists resorting to disgraceful tricks to successfully achieve this 'Mission Impossible'. The opposition too is silent; we know why.

The Emergency mindset is, thus, not only alive in the Congress, it is now even stronger than it was during the Emergency. The aam admi remains largely unaware because his testicles are not physically on the line now. But, there is enough evidence to suggest that he is no longer as relevant as he should be in a vibrant democracy. The Congress has sorted out the arithmetic of elections in a manner that has made him almost irrelevant, bar a sop here and there before elections to prevent a large swing. The opposition has also understood this game of numbers and has learnt to live with it, and make the best out of it wherever and whenever it can, even if means that some key leaders have to risk selling out to the Congress directly or via the CBI etc.

That is why there is zero possibility of any politician imposing the kind of Emergency that Indira Gandhi did again. But that is not because democracy has taken deep roots or is vibrant. That is primarily because there is no need for any politician to do with a hatchet what he/she can with a fake smile, except to set the occasional example. The corruption pie is now humongous, and there is enough for everyone to get something out of it. No one wants to spoil the party; keeping the mouth shut and treating the Family above all is a small price to pay. As long as the going is good. As of now, the highway ahead is paved with gold; there is no need or time to look on the side where the poor reside.
May also like to read:
1. Politics and media: a new Nadir
2. Khaoists: Plundering India's future