The facetious will say that the presence of Maneka Sanjay Gandhi in the cabinet of Narendra Modi is the conclusive link between the state of Emergency imposed by her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, and the present political age.

Sanjay Gandhi, the younger of Indira Gandhi’s two sons and Maneka Gandhi’s husband, was the de facto ruler of India between the summer of 1975 and the spring of 1977.

The reasons for the Bharatiya Janata Party elevating Maneka Gandhi to the Modi Cabinet – she was also a minister, albeit a junior one, in the government of Atal Behari Vajpayee – are many. The BJP coddles her to spite her relative, Congress President Sonia Gandhi, and that branch of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Moreover, she helps the party connect with the rich Sikh farmer community in the Terai region of North India.

Maneka Gandhi, who as a teenage student modelled for Delhi Cloth Mills towels, and has always been a key part of all the political and gossip narratives of the Emergency as an eyewitness, may perhaps not want to remember the period. Nor would her son Varun, who was a babe in arms when his father tragically lost his life while performing aerobatics in the Delhi skies soon after he had helped Indira Gandhi return to power after her defeat by the Janata party in 1977.

Wielding extraordinary powers

Before his death, Sanjay Gandhi made what is perhaps one of the more important contributions to the political lexicon of India. The phrase “extra-constitutional centre of authority” was coined for him. However, even this phrase does not fully describe the power he wielded, which was more than mere prime ministers of democratic republics had ever done and even dictators could dream of despite having vast armies. Second sons do not otherwise matter in the primogeniture culture of India’s power and business elites. But Sanjay Gandhi did.

Forty years on, researchers, political scientists, journalists and even Congress politicians close to the Gandhi family can shed little light on the son’s hold on the mother. Fantasies have been woven around this mystery, some skirting dark family secrets and the black supernatural arts. There is no point asking Maneka Gandhi. She would not know. And, perhaps, neither would Sonia Gandhi. The secret is safe with the dead.

Morarji Desai, who became prime minister after being appointed leader of the hastily cobbled Janata Party which defeated Indira Gandhi in 1977, set up the Justice Shah Commission of Enquiry to investigate the excesses of the Emergency. The commission never could complete its work, and was wound up with the collapse of the Janata government and the return of Indira Gandhi. Its precious documentation, including the original files of many ministries, has been lost forever. There has not been any serious effort by research scholars and others to use the Right to Information to retrieve the files, and trace the impact the extra-constitutional centre of authority had on the country and its people.

Sanjay Gandhi never occupied any office in government when his mother imposed the Emergency. He was not a Member of Parliament at that time. And though several members of the Youth Congress became part of his coterie, and threw their weight about, the people “obeying” his orders were cabinet ministers, senior bureaucrats, ranking police officers. Among them were ministers such as Vidya Charan Shukla, in charge of Information and Broadcasting; Om Mehta, the junior minister for Home Affairs; Jagmohan, the vice chairman of the Delhi Development Authority; PS Bhinder, a top functionary of Delhi police; Municipal Commissioner B R Tamta; and the governors, chief ministers and chief secretaries of several states.

An unspoken Islamophobia

As so many members of some ancient praetorian guard, they seemed to swear personal loyalty not to the State, but to Sanjay Gandhi. Did they gain personally? Not every one of them. A few died miserable deaths, among them Delhi Lt Governor Krishan Chand. Most saved their jobs, and gained a promotion or two. Some rose further, including Bhinder, who became police commissioner of Delhi and saw his wife elected to the Lok Sabha, more than once. Shukla and Jagmohan rose in the Congress government, switched sides to other popliteal formations, and rose further. Jagmohan was a governor and a minister in the BJP government.

The few of them who wrote books, including Jagmohan, never did explain what mesmerised them that they forgot the rules of their services or the niceties of the system. Many of them made money on the side, it was said. But no one really became a tycoon. The traditional business houses prospered, but they had always prospered, no matter the authority, from the times of the British and the World Wars.

A common thread was, perhaps, an unspoken Islamophobia – a dislike if not hate for the Muslims of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and other North Indian regions. What would later be called demographic paranoia. That would explain an aspect of the viciousness of the programmes of forcible sterilisation – tubectomies and vasectomies of young men and women as well as others well past the age of procreation. While the target seemed to be the population of the poor at large, Muslims and Muslim majority areas were patently a special target, by design. The terrible might of the State was successfully – at least for a time – pressed into the service of a pervert political xenophobia.

That too was the case with due process of law, the criminal justice system, and above all, the police. It went far beyond the mass arrests that marked the onset of the Emergency, when almost every politician and activist of national or municipal status was locked up without much hope of judicial redress. There had been large-scale political killings of Naxalites and political rivals in Bengal and other places even before the Emergency. But the first talk of extra-judicial executions – “false encounters” as they are now called especially when the dead are Muslims or others labelled as Maoists – burst through then despite the cover of official censorship. Even people not born then know about the curious case of Sundar Daku of Delhi, and his death at the hands of the local police.

Subverting the Constitution

All this was a sub-plot in the governance of the day. It was a parallel track that kept pace with the more formal dismantling of the Constitutional apparatus. Indira Gandhi, her docile cabinet, the faceless “kitchen cabinet” and the Prime Minister’s Office, did the tasks Sanjay Gandhi set for them, and then some more.

Sanjay Gandhi had shown how easily the “foolproof” Constitution created by the likes of Dr BR Ambedkar and his grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, could be subverted, castrated and, for all practical purposes, thrown into the dustbin. Atal Behari Vajpayee had, in another context, called Indira Gandhi Durga, the awesome demon-slaying Goddess, the person of the bold stroke, the steel-encased iron fist, the challenger of fate itself. This had been seen before the Emergency when she challenged the reigning deities, and divided the Congress. In 1971, she divided Pakistan in the face of opposition from the west. She challenged the superpowers and carried out the nuclear “implosion”. And then, she tempted fate and sent army tanks into the Golden Temple in an unprecedented show of strength and in a decision so very wrong in hindsight. These are qualities, or properties, that many admire in a leader.

But she was the prime minister, even if her election had been challenged in court, and for a time, upturned.

Sanjay Gandhi showed one does not have to hold office to wield government power.

That continues to tempt individuals and organisations.

John Dayal co-authored For Reasons of State – Delhi under the Emergency with Ajoy Bose, published in 1977.