It is tempting to believe that the incessant media commentaries reminiscing about the dark days of the Emergency are due to the fact that the 40th anniversary of event fell on June 26. The figure 40, inexplicably, unspools memories of cataclysmic events, both in India or abroad.

But the real reason for consciously remembering the Emergency this year arises from fears and doubts about the prevailing political culture, evident in these media commentaries.

One aspect of this culture to which most writers alluded was the persistence of a personality cult, which a popular leader could exploit to stampede people’s rights and liberties through measures not deemed extra-Constitutional or illegal. The other aspect pertained to examining whether India still retains the resolve to thwart the popular leader from becoming authoritarian, as its citizens displayed 40 years ago through their resistance to the Emergency.

The cult of personality has always marked Indian politics. But fears about this phenomenon have rarely been expressed so forthrightly and alarmingly as now. The Emergency anniversary reminded the commentators on the remarkable similarity between Indira Gandhi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Like her, Modi is immensely popular and strong-willed, brooks no dissent, and believes in dwarfing his colleagues and the party.

Subverting democracy

Historian Ramachandra Guha quotes S Nijalingappa, the president of the Congress before its split in 1969, to outline the process through which democracy is subverted. This happens, Nijalingappa said, “when a leader who has risen to power on the crest of a popular wave or with the support of a democratic organisation becomes a victim of political narcissism….”

Guha goes on to examine the trail Modi blazed in Gujarat, pointing out that he decimated dissent within the state unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the cabinet and then presented himself as the symbol of his state. “Gujarat’s past, present and future, its hopes and its aspirations, its pride (and its prejudices) were all subsumed in the political career of one person…. Now this has been transferred to the national level,” writes Guha, adding that Modi’s admirers now see him as the very embodiment of the nation.

Just like India was once Indira, today, India is Modi. This theme reverberates in Guha’s judgement: “A nationwide cult of personality is steadily being built around the prime minister, willed along by the BJP’s many DK Baruahs and SS Rays [Congress leaders of an era past]. In this respect, if in no other, the Emergency is with us yet.”

The Yoga Day spectacle

Author and former governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi alludes to the imagery of Modi celebrating the International Yoga Day at India Gate to underscore the similarities in the styles of Indira Gandhi and Modi. “There were no Yoga Day type drills organised at the time [of the Emergency] but ‘spontaneous’ rallies were called to hail the proclamation, hail the Emancipator,” Gandhi writes.

He, like so many others, believes it is impossible for the 1975-type of Emergency to revisit India, largely because the 44th amendment of the Constitution has ensured the fundamental rights of the people cannot be quashed. Yet, why does Modi’s style of politics worry Gandhi? He answers: “What we have to be wary of is something as bad – the robotisation of our minds into a ‘yogic’ acceptance of one drill – majoritarianism – and its masterful drill-master.”

What is this majoritarianism about? Political scientist DL Sheth, in an interview to, defined it as a political culture in which “Hindu ka bolbala rahega”, Hindus will be prominent. Majoritarianism, unlike authoritarianism, abides by rules – it, in fact, cites the popular will, expressed through the ballot, to argue against the immorality of any action and demands the numerical minority must accept it.

Nevertheless, majoritarianism is frightening and, therefore, dehumanising. Its contours were spelt out by Gopalkrishna Gandhi in the People’s Union of Civil Liberties 35th JP Memorial Lecture on March 23. “… In times when there are no riots or riots in real time there has never been a time when fear has been so pronounced in the hearts and minds of the minority communities in India,” he said.

He cited the recent ban on cow-slaughter in certain states to illustrate the workings of majoritarianism. He said Jayaprakash Narayan would not have stomached the sight of a cow being slaughtered. Yet he would never have allowed the cow-slaughter issue to become “a political tool in the hands of a majority party which is using the majority community’s susceptibility, sentiments and heartstrings to needle the minority community, in this case the Muslim community in particular.”

Majoritarian actions

Gandhi also referred to the vandalising of churches, questioning the government’s thesis of classifying it as a law and order problem. Add to these examples of majoritarianism the love jihad and ghar wapsi programmes and many other insidious ways the communal cauldron is kept simmering. Through all these measures the BJP seeks to translate the religious majority into political majority.

What worries political scientist Sheth is the BJP government deploying its power to tighten the screws on those who do  not agree with it or protest its measures. The financial curb on NGOs is an example. But nothing can quite surpass the hounding of Teesta Setalvad and Javed Anand, who together ensured the memory of the 2002 riots has not been scrubbed out from public consciousness and the victims’ quest to seek justice forgotten or subverted. The mighty Central Bureau of Investigation will now have them in its crosshairs.

Perhaps this method of tightening the screws on individuals and organisations, by invoking laws, is what prompts columnist Pratap Bhanu Mehta to say that “elements of the Emergency are now inscribed into the common sense of the state”. He argues India has “devolved into lots of little Emergencies: less ominous, but equally insidious. But also harder to combat.”

This is why it is pertinent to ask: Do Indians have it in them to counter “little Emergencies” or majoritarianism or the tightening of screws on the dissenter and the contrarian? Many commentaries did indeed express worries on this score, regardless of the saga of resistance against the Emergency being strongly etched in the public consciousness.

Why are the commentators gnawed by doubts?

A clue

That we commemorate the Emergency on the day – June 26 – it was imposed than when it was lifted – March 23 – perhaps provides a peep into the national consciousness. Come to think of it, is the end of World War II commemorated or its beginning? Do we remember the day the construction of the Berlin Wall began or the moment the first blow to it was delivered? In hindsight, telescoped through the lens of recent commentaries, it would seem there are deeper reasons why June 26 has an echo in us and March 23 not a beep.

Perhaps the choice of dates to remember the Emergency is determined by the fact that its revocation was triggered by an unexpected twist – Indira Gandhi's decision to call for the general election on January 18,  1977. It remains an enduring mystery why she suddenly opted to go to the people. For all her grievous faults, Mehta says, Gandhi was, as PN Dhar put it, “a half-hearted authoritarian”. In the final analysis, she did seek genuine popular approval, called elections and created the opening that limited the damage.

Indeed, her decision to call for the election was in no way directly linked to the resistance against the Emergency pushing her regime to the tipping point. The reverse was actually true –then Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Balasaheb Deoras had already written several letters to Indira Gandhi, deemed as apologies. A clutch of Opposition leaders opened negotiations with Gandhi and had been already released before the 1977 election was announced.

In this sense, there was no spectacularly precipitous event that compelled Gandhi to call for the general election. Ceremonies of remembrance are constructed around momentous moments as, for instance, the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

But what was indeed spectacular was the verdict of the 1977 election – the severe drubbing the Congress received left no option for Indira Gandhi but to bow out of office – and lift the Emergency.

Diluted triumph

But even this heady moment couldn’t be memorialised, denuded of its significance as it was because of the squabbling in the Janata Party that defeated the Congress in the elections. The popular exuberance soon turned into sullen disenchantment. The credentials of the political class as the nucleus of protest were further eroded in subsequent years as, say, it happened immediately after the campaign against the Bofors deal. One reason the anti-corruption movement of 2011-2013 had resonance was because its activists consciously kept the political class out of the protest arena.

In addition, resistance against the exercise of draconian power has become so much more difficult because the “structures of democracy have weakened students, peasants and labour”, says Mehta. An authoritarian democrat can legally crush protests before these turn into movements. Mehta argues, “The state’s enhanced capacity for order preempts a sense of anarchy. We now have a crackdown we don’t see.”

Gopalkrishna Gandhi in his March 23 speech spoke of the current trend to combine two factors to snuff out dissent. One entails exploiting the prejudices people have against other communities and aggravating polarisation through cow-slaughter and temples issues. The other pull is the promise of a good life and progress made to the people. In this sense, fear and seduction are combined to perpetrate the little Emergencies or majoritarianism or for tightening the screws on dissenters.

Until we grasp and protest the real meaning of the state hounding Setalvad and Anand has for our democracy, we might be construed to be living in an era of Democracy without Dissent – and that is authoritarianism.

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