What if the Emergency hadn’t happened? You may not think it worth your while to answer the question. But its 40th anniversary is upon us, and it is being used once again to explain the most unlikely developments. So it is worth asking what difference did the Emergency make, and what else could have happened as a result of that event.

The Emergency has become part of the historical landscape, an episode of dictatorial rule that resulted in left- and right-wing groups uniting to oust the ruling party that was associated with national independence. As such, to invoke the Emergency is to place oneself in opposition to dictatorship and in alignment with “the people”, who are virtuous by contrast.

For example, Narendra Modi invoked the Emergency in a speech in Ahmedabad on May 16 when he said, “This is the second election after the Emergency where people voted for an agenda, rather than going by caste and religion…. This is the first time when people who are not in power set the agenda of the election and not those who were in power.”

Modi was claiming in his speech to embody the democratic aspiration of the Indian people as a whole, and speaking as if he had not been the longest-serving chief minister of Gujarat and a party personage to the hilt. It was as if he was a popular subversive toppling the establishment, and not the favoured candidate of India Inc. That he defeated the Congress presumably affirmed his pedigree as the inheritor of the victory against the Emergency.

Little-examined event

Oddly enough, a week later, The Economist carried a cover story about Modi, headlined “One Man Band”, which asserted that his extreme centralisation of power was an ineffective means of achieving his goals. “[The mistake] is for Mr Modi to think that he alone can bring about change,” it said. It was as if Modi was a dictator.

Modi’s reference to the Emergency and his self-image are clearly contradicted by the news reports about him, and The Economist is not alone in bringing this up. Has the Emergency become so evacuated as a symbol that it can be used to symbolise the victory of the largest corporate-backed campaign in Indian election history? To answer that question, consider another: if Modi’s claim caused a backlash or outcry, did anyone notice it?

Major historical events become like monuments: well known but little examined. They even block our view, and prevent us from seeing the historical landscape in which they were built and helped transform. Clearly, the Emergency, or more precisely overcoming the Emergency, has become a monument to democratic virtue.

Whatever the effects of defeating the Emergency might have been, they are remembered so little that it is hard to have a debate on the subject. That is not surprising, since the Congress, which was booted out at the end of the Emergency, came back to power within three years and stayed for a long time afterwards. The Shah Commission Report which detailed the “excesses” of the Emergency was withdrawn from publication, and critics of the Emergency were sidelined. The Bharatiya Janata Party was the single biggest winner and has, as a result, come to “own” the Emergency more than any other political party.

Forgotten non-party forces 

However, independent non-party forces were also energised by the Emergency, and the gulf between state authority and the people diminished to some extent. But besides the BJP, the other beneficiaries of the Emergency had no reason to promote the event. And political leaders shifted gears, abandoning the old style of propaganda which told people what to do and what not to do, and threatened them for disobedience.

For example, during the Emergency, there were posters of Indira Gandhi with statements about the need to adopt family planning by any means necessary. With the defeat of the Emergency, the virtues of advertising and the soft sell became obvious. State publicity became more “customer-centred” after that. But there are no billboards announcing that change, or thanking the Emergency for alerting propagandists to the value of soft power.

That is why this is a good occasion to pose a “What if” question. That is, what if things had gone another way? Such counterfactuals can make us look afresh at things we take for granted and assume that we know everything about, but don’t.

So, what if the Emergency hadn’t happened? Supposing Justice VR Krishna Iyer had given an unconditional stay order of the Allahabad High Court judgement, and Indira Gandhi continued in office without declaring an Emergency. Supposing Gandhi had compromised with Jayaprakash Narayan, as Chandra Shekhar had wanted her to, instead of snubbing the venerable freedom fighter and leaving him with fewer options.

Meaning of democracy

Would Jayaprakash Narayan and the Jan Sangh have joined hands if the Emergency had not been called? Would the Jan Sangh have remained at the level of “political untouchables”, as LK Advani and others had been complaining? Would the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh not have remained an organisation dreaming of organising the nation but focused on expanding the membership of its shakhas with the few lakh members it had?

It is hard to say and, in any case, this is about just one party. One-party dominance needed to end in the country, and the equation of state, nation and party that the Congress had effectively asserted for so long had to be rejected.

But if the Emergency was about the assertion about India’s democratic vitality, why are we reduced to one-party dominance again? Granted, the BJP is different from the Congress. But the point is that we should have more options that allow the political process to reflect and engage with the full range of India’s many-layered society.

Some may argue that the BJP and Congress have become akin to the two-party system of some mature western democracies, and represent the domestic equivalent of conservative and liberal parties. But a two-party system presumes that there is a clear common ground of politics shared by the main competitors, and that the rules of engagement are agreed upon. The reason India has numerous parties and a first-past-the-post system is that there are numerous fractions in our polity that do not necessarily get adequately represented with only one or two parties. For example, both the BJP and the Congress are dominated by Hindu upper castes, who are a minority in the population. Furthermore, there are no limits in our political process: from time to time riots are also used to win elections, in what the political scientist Paul Brass has called India’s “institutionalized riot system”.

If the Emergency hadn’t happened, the Congress might have stayed in power, and given how unresponsive it had become, that would have been a disaster. But the Emergency was overthrown by a democratic efflorescence, most of which got absorbed by civil society, by the market, and by the now dominant political party. Those energies need to be directed to broadening the political process and deepening the meaning of democracy, again.