Professor DL Sheth is Honorary Senior Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. On the 40th anniversary of the Emergency, he spoke on the principal characters of the anti-Emergency movement, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s attempts at appropriating it, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s role and whether the Modi government displays authoritarian tendencies. Excerpts:

Even before Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency, wasn't tremendous pressure already building up in the political system?
Yes, the origin of this pressure can be traced to the split of the Congress party in 1969. For the first time, there was a divide along ideological lines, between the old Congress, the old regime, and the new Congress represented by Indira Gandhi, who was taking pro-people initiatives (such as the nationalisation of banks, mines and abolition of the privy purse). It would be tempting to see the divide as one between the Right and the Left in the Congress, but it was really more new than Left.

This destabilised the political system. Till then, the country’s politics was of the noblesse oblige kind. The split redefined the polity. Mrs Gandhi got support beyond expectations. Her popularity threatened the political parties no end; they thought they were at a dead-end.

Did the political parties experience an existential threat because of her policies?
Right after the split, Gandhi evolved a new language of politics. The parties could not adjust or respond to it. Secondly, her policies opened up the politics. The old style of politics was defined by trusteeship, by patron-client relationship. There was new energy in the party system and civil society. Mrs Gandhi took advantage of this to win the 1971 election and emerged as the national leader. Then she won the Bangladesh war. She was now the supreme leader of Indian politics, thereby pushing all other parties into a crisis.

On the other hand, you had civil society groups led by Jayaprakash Narayan, or JP, among the few from the pre-Independence period who was still around, who had socialist credentials, and was Gandhi-esque, in the sense that he was for the country, not for posts. He was telling the people that the country had stagnated because of corruption. In fact, JP said Mrs Gandhi was the fountain of corruption.

There were other sources of dissatisfaction – for instance, price rise and unemployment. Gandhi was cynically for political power. Yet her policies infused her with a charismatic appeal for the poor. By contrast, the lower to upper middle class were more in the civil society movements of JP. All this was leading to a confrontation.

The civil society also had a party structure, which included the socialists, basically leaders of groups who were to later constitute the Janata Party, the Akalis and other regional entities. They felt Mrs Gandhi’s charismatic appeal threatened their revival, even survival.

The Left prospered with Mrs Gandhi. For the first time, you had an ideological division in the political culture – Mrs Gandhi and the Left together were pitted against the rest, who were stereotyped Right, conservative, pro-Capitalists, but who were seen by people as nationalists, opposed to corruption, and engaged in popular movements in Gujarat and Bihar. JP was the leader of these movements. His very presence enabled these movements to acquire a national appeal.

Then came the Allahabad High Court judgement?
Yes, the Allahabad High Court judgement [June 12, 1975] declared Mrs Gandhi’s election from Rae Bareli null and void on the grounds that she had misused the official machinery for her campaign. She went in appeal to the Supreme Court, which granted conditional stay on the judgement – she was barred from voting in the Lok Sabha until the final judgement but could remain as Prime Minister.

The judgement was a catalyst?
Yes. Raj Narain was one whom Mrs Gandhi had defeated in Rae Bareli and who had petitioned the court. He’s portrayed as a clownish figure. But if there was one person who, after JP, had a role in upstaging her, it was Raj Narain. He persisted with the case, never gave up. The judgement was a blow to her. She couldn’t take it because of her belief in the divine theory of family rule. Feeling insulted, she went on to impose the Emergency.

JP was both the guiding figure and the symbol of the anti-Emergency movement. But who were the other principal actors?
The entire youth of the country, people whom we can loosely label as socialists – the JP-ites, the Lohia-ites, men like Ashok Mehta. The spread and life of these dispersed characters called socialists was clearly underestimated. Though attacked by both the Congress and the Left, they were engaged in popular movements and had also fared well electorally – for instance, in 1967. JP’s call for Total Revolution brought all these socialists on one platform.

What about the role of the BJP?
There was no BJP then.

Yes, they were then known as Jan Sangh.
They were also stagnating, were painted in a corner, despite the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s famed network. The RSS-Jan Sangh was then typically symbolised by 40-something, bespectacled knicker-wallahs, five or six of whom would assemble in neighbourhood parks. They suddenly came alive because of JP. He was a lifeline for them. It was by participating in the JP movement that the RSS-Jan Sangh came into mainstream politics.

If you think how the Emergency was countered and resisted at several points, you won’t find many BJP characters. You will find the socialists and others, but not the BJP. They were on the margins of politics. Really, you wouldn’t call their leader, Balraj Madhok, mainstream, would you?

What about AB Vajpayee, LK Advani?
They were all creatures of the JP movement. It was the RSS’s considered judgement to seize the opportunity provided by JP’s anti-Emergency movement for coming into the mainstream and working out their agenda through democratic politics. Since it was a cadre-based organisation, it could actually issue diktats such as: “so many people have to go for the jail-bharo andolan [‘fill the prisons’ movement].” If you look at the number of people who were jailed during the Emergency, they must be the highest. They had the cadres – and their families were looked after by the organisation.

Are you implying that they didn't face the brunt of what is called the Emergency crackdown or oppression?
Yes, they didn’t face the brunt of the Emergency. Once a person was in the jail, he didn’t face much problem there. It wasn’t as if they were being tortured.

So who were the people who faced the brunt of the Emergency?
Socialists and civil society activists, people who were dissenters. The power of oppression was decentralised – those who were tortured at police stations were the ones organising everyday protests. In comparison, spending two-three months or years in jail wasn’t that bad. Somebody should write on their life there!

Who were the people organising the everyday protest?
The young, the socialists, the liberals, and the NGOs. Even here at this institute [CSDS], for instance, people got together and opposed the Emergency. We feared a crackdown, but didn’t face it. But the group comprising the socialists and liberals were suppressed, and there were instances of disappearances. In fact, the real oppression was outside the jail. Though not quantifiable, the principal headache for the regime was the everyday protest. My perception is based on the many visits I made to friends in the jail.

It’s very important to understand the culture of resistance to know how the Emergency was opposed. It involved having an item inserted in newspapers, or distributing pamphlets clandestinely, or writing graffiti on walls, or networking with groups in other parts of the country resisting the Emergency. It was like getting kicks as if you were underground.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley is credited for having organised an anti-Emergency meeting in Delhi University. How significant would that have been?
It would have been significant for those days. People were scared then.

Weren’t such meetings being held countrywide? You said even the CSDS organised a meeting.
Yes, such meetings were being held all around. I don’t know how much I can tell you about this place. But Rajni Kothari [CSDS founder and eminent political scientist], for instance, was about to be arrested. Mrs Gandhi’s then principal secretary, PN Dhar, called Kothari and said, “Move out in 24 hours or you will be arrested.” Kothari didn’t want to leave, but he was in such poor health that we had to push him out.

Are you saying Jaitley’s anti-Emergency endeavour wasn’t so unique?
Unique? Not at all. Whether you went to Bombay or Madras or wherever, there were spontaneous protests. For the first time you felt that democratic culture had been imbibed in India’s public life. You didn’t have supporters of the Emergency other than those who were in the Communist Party of India. That finished the CPI, but the Communist Party of India (Marxist) survived.

Wasn’t that because the CPI(M) opposed the Emergency?
I wouldn’t say they opposed the Emergency. But yes, they didn’t support it. They were unhappy about it.

Would you say the role of Akalis was more significant than the BJP’s?
Looks like so. I wouldn’t like to compare the two, but the Akalis’ role in opposing the Emergency was significant and glorious.

What about then RSS chief Balasaheb Deoras apologising to Indira Gandhi?
Yes, Deoras did write such a letter. The RSS was ambivalent about Mrs Gandhi. They considered her a nationalist, a hero who defeated Pakistan and created Bangladesh. Vajpayee called her Durga. They were ambivalent about Mrs. Gandhi – because they saw her winning a war for the Hindus for the first time!

Individual cases apart, the RSS was not offended by the Emergency, not in the way socialists and liberals were. The RSS’s decision to oppose the Emergency was based on a mature, political judgement about their future.

Why do you say it was a mature judgement?
The Sangh’s decision to oppose the Emergency gave it ample political space in the mainstream and accorded credibility to the Jan Sangh (later BJP). From a long-term perspective, JP made a mistake by forming the Janata Party. History would have been different had he decided to lead a coalition of parties.  

Do you mean the Janata Party sanctified the RSS-BJP?
Yes. When the Jan Sangh became BJP, they kept the Janata in its name. So from being the Jan Sangh, they became the Bharatiya Janata Party. In the process, they got the janata [people] so to speak. This was the gain they hadn’t had in 100 years. On the positive side, it enabled the BJP to give space to Hinduists who would have been even more fundamentalist otherwise. Had Indira Gandhi given a more nationalist face to the Emergency, it is hard to tell whether the RSS would have opposed the Emergency.

Considering the role of socialists, would you agree the BJP is trying to appropriate the memory of the anti-Emergency movement for itself?
They are trying to. But it doesn’t wash with me.

But the way the BJP leaders talk about their role in opposing the Emergency, it appears today that they were the sole opponents of it.
This is because of the dispersal of socialists. You feel ashamed of Lohia-ites like Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Sharad Yadav – though for him [Sharad Yadav] I still have respect. You wonder what lessons they learnt from the Emergency. They have become casteists. They squandered the opportunity to build a party organisation. It’s such a pity that others don’t create parallel memories about the anti-Emergency movement, memories that are more democratic, liberal and cultural.

By contrast, the BJP used the anti-Emergency movement to build itself.
In every organisation’s history there is something which it wants to celebrate and mythicise. Before the Emergency, what did the RSS-Jan Sangh/BJP have? The murder of Gandhi. During the Independence movement when the non-communal nationalism was emerging, what was their record? There was nothing in their contribution to the Independence movement which could have given them legitimacy. This is why I say the anti-Emergency movement was a lifeline for them. This is the only thing they have to celebrate, and also because behind its celebration they can hide their past.

It’s a pity that the memory of the anti-Emergency movement means more to the BJP today than it does to the fragments of the Janata Party.

Do you think the majoritarian philosophy of the RSS-BJP could lead to authoritarianism?
There is a problem of context here. Since the mid-1980s, Nehruvian secularism has been turned by Congress into what I call permissive communalism, which means you are permitted to be communal on certain issues – symbolised by the opening of the gates of the Babri Masjid and closing the gates for Shah Bano. The BJP has taken advantage of it to push their project – how to bring about a congruence between electoral majority and cultural, rather religious, majority. The Emergency provided them the chance to work out this congruence. They didn’t succeed until 2014. The jury is now out.

What’s your verdict on the BJP’s project?
My general feeling is that Modi knows politics and power. For the first time, the Hindutva ideology is not that of [Vinayak Damodar] Sarvarkar (who coined the term ‘Hindutva] or [Madhav Sadashiv] Golwalkar [the second chief of the RSS]. It is Modi-like Hindutva, which, to define it, means Hindu ka bolbaalaa rahegaa (Hindus will be in prominence).

Could that lead to authoritarianism?
No, I have great faith in Indian democracy. After the 2014 election, I met a whole range of people who thought they would be put in jail as soon as Modi became Prime Minister. They lack faith in the Indian people.  He is the elected Prime Minister – you can oppose him, you can contest his ideology, you don’t have to accept him. After the big win in the 1971 election and the Bangladesh war, Indira Gandhi took just two-three years to lose her popularity.

Let me put it this way – they will try to be authoritarian, but they won’t succeed.

So can’t authoritarianism come in a way different from what we experienced during the Emergency?
I may see authoritarianism coming from the Marxist Left, but not from the Hindu Right. There are just too many countervailing forces among the demographic Hindus. We shouldn’t read something, that is, authoritarianism, into our political culture which doesn’t have that – but which might become a self-fulfilling prophecy as a result. This government will have a majoritarian thrust – the challenge is to fight it without encouraging a brand of minorityism.

So you are very sure the Emergency will never be imposed and authoritarianism will not raise its head in the future?
But it need not always be about imposing the Emergency. It could also be about on how to tighten the screw – and on whom. For example, it is being done in the Ministry of Human Resources. My problem with this regime is what they are doing to the Non Governmental Organisations – the NGOs  – or the film institute in Pune. This is some kind of McCarthyism, which too had popular support. It is a witch-hunt of those who disagree with the regime. You also have the problem of not recognising the rights of minorities.

In other words, what you are saying is that majoritarianism, unlike authoritarianism, still subscribes to rules.
Yes, absolutely. But it needs to be fought. That is why we should expand the public discourse from secular-communal to liberal-illiberal.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist from Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, published by HarperCollins, is available in bookstores.