In hindsight, the most enduring legacy of the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi was not the suspension of fundamental rights and her dictatorial stance. It was the lesson the opponents of Emergency drew from their success in dislodging her from power – that a regime can acquire all the attributes of authoritarianism but avoid incurring the wrath of the people as long as democracy was not officially suspended. To put it another way, it is possible to shrink democracy in India and violate Constitutional principles even as elections continue to be conducted.

The Emergency lasted for 21 months, from June 1975 to March 1977. Among those who fought against it was the Jana Sangh, which later transformed itself into the Bharatiya Janata Party. During this period, when Indira Gandhi and her Congress colleagues were cracking down on all dissent and jailing Opposition leaders, Narendra Modi – as a junior member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – is said to have passed messages from one leader in hiding to another. But in elections held in March 1977, Gandhi and the Congress suffered a bruising defeat.

The memory of removing the seemingly invincible Indira Gandhi from power has made it inconceivable for anyone to think of imposing an Emergency again. But short of a formal declaration, all the methods of Emergency could still be adopted to crush the government’s opponents. All it takes is a knock on the door of the dissident with an arrest warrant. It could take them months or even years of court battles to win back their freedom.

This strategy is writ large in the arrests of five human rights activists on August 28, and raids on five others. It was also the story of the five activists who were arrested in June.

As was the case during the Emergency, a narrative has been crafted around these arrests to link them to a larger conspiracy to foment violence, destabilise the nation and remove the government from power. Police leaks to sections of the media have tried to push the narrative that the five who were arrested in June were engaged in a plot to assassinate Modi.

According to that narrative, the plot to kill or remove Modi is a result of the fact that he has frustrated the designs of malevolent forces. This was the line about Indira Gandhi during the Emergency but now the identities of the malevolent forces have changed. During Indira Gandhi’s time, it was America’s Central Intelligence Agency. Now, of course, it is Maoists and their covert urban supporters.

The narrative now in circulation claims that the Maoists, in their endeavour to change the nature of the Indian state, are backed by urban Left-wing intellectuals masquerading as human rights activists. In 1975, the narrative was that Americans were operating through elements in India’s political class to remove the country from the socialist embrace of the Soviet Union and place it in the global structure dominated by the US and capitalism.

Then as now, to counter the perceived silent, invisible war against the prime minister and the Indian state, it has been imperative to take measures not sanctioned by the Constitution – for instance, sending people to jail with fabricated evidence.

It is at this juncture that the methods of Modi and Indira Gandhi diverge.

Modi’s undeclared Emergency

From today’s perspective, it seems that Indira Gandhi’s mistake was not so much being autocratic as to establish authoritarianism through an official declaration of Emergency. This created the impression that India had been turned into a one big jail. The right to free speech was suspended. Press censorship was imposed and journalists such as Kuldip Nayar were jailed. People knew that the stories in newspapers were either partially true or even completely concocted.

Even for those Indians who did not usually voice their opinions against the state, it seemed as if something precious had been lost. The deprivation of rights was conceptual. It was rightly interpreted as an insult to citizens. They were all potential recruits to the Opposition’s movement against the Emergency.

The Modi government seems to have understood Indira Gandhi’s folly of turning India into a jail and inviting the anger of the quiescent, submissive lot. It seems to have concluded that the regime should instead focus on curbing the freedom of its critics and ideological opponents – it is they, after all, who instigate those alienated from the state to protest against it.

It is no wonder then that the Modi government and the BJP have shown a remarkable inclination to label their critics as anti-national and entangle them in court cases that will cost them time, money and energy – and break their resolve. It also isolates critics from others, barring the section on whose behalf they speak. But that section, by definition, is marginalised and has limited influence.

The BJP’s strategy of isolating critics preempts, or at least delays, the building of a platform on which citizens can band together, regardless of their class and ideological orientation. From this perspective, only the rights of 10 activists since June have been curbed.

For all others, their rights are theoretically and substantively intact in sharp contrast to the situation under Emergency, when every citizen’s rights had been shrunk. Unlike Modi, Indira Gandhi’s hands were perhaps tied – she had to suspend rights because a rash of strikes had broken out before she imposed Emergency.

The Modi regime’s treatment of these 10 activists is a warning to other civil society activists in remote corners of India: “If urban intellectuals, boasting a support network, can be tormented, just imagine what could happen to those who are unknown.”

Indeed, the 10 human rights activists have been made an example for leaders of farmers campaigns, social groups demanding reservations in education and government jobs, and Dalits and Muslims protesting against the violence directed against them. Take Bhim Sena leader Chandrashekar Azad, who has been languishing in jail under the National Security Act since June 2017.

Lessons from the Emergency

Modi and the BJP have drawn another lesson from the Emergency – that structures of authoritarianism best endure with sectional support. Indira Gandhi’s mistake was that her authoritarian model lacked a special appeal for clusters of caste, class and religious groups. The anti-CIA foundation of her model was too nebulous to have appeal beyond the minuscule percentage of people knowledgeable about the underbelly of imperialism.

Worse, Indira Gandhi could not identify the American moles in the Indian government to prove her theory, even though the New York Times reported the presence of a CIA operative in the Indian government in the run-up to the 1971 war against Pakistan. The operative was never identified, even though the Washington Post said this person was a “source close to Mrs Gandhi”.

Modi’s model of authoritarianism is not nebulous. There are sections of India’s population whose loyalty to India has traditionally been held in suspicion by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Its second sarsanghchalak or chief, MS Golwalkar, said that India’s “internal enemies” are Muslims, Christians and communists, groups that would be classified as “anti-national” today. To this group have been added the Ambedkarites, who have created a counter-narrative to Modi’s outreach to Dalits. The targets of the Modi model are evident in the sites of protests that have been described as anti-national – Jawaharlal Nehru University, Hyderabad Central University, and Adivasi regions in Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Jharkhand.

Barring them, however, Modi’s authoritarian model largely leaves untouched the other sections of the nation. It is these other sections that the Modi government must convince about the anti-national conspiracy that is afoot to dislodge him from power. In the pursuit of this goal, it is a minor matter to throw a few intellectuals behind bars.

Indira Gandhi’s model lacked distinctive class, caste, religious and ideological components. Her “Garibi Hatao” slogan, the nationalisation of banks, and abolition of privy purses had won her the support of the lower classes. But they were alienated because policies executed during the Emergency, such as the forced sterilisation programme, affected them most.

Unlike Indira Gandhi, Modi has been careful not to hurt the party’s traditional support base. Perhaps Modi has analysed the results of the post-Emergency Lok Sabha elections of 1977. Despite the excesses of the Emergency, Indira Gandhi’s Congress party bagged 34.5% of national votes and 153 seats. Along with its allies, the party bagged 41% of votes and 189 seats. The party was routed in the North, but it held its own in the South. It can be concluded that the impact of the Emergency had not been geographically uniform.

Modi has designed his model of authoritarianism to only cow down his opponents, not the entire nation so that the BJP can retain sectional support. In this model, the media has a role. Since the media is not formally censored as it was during the Emergency, the fiction of it being completely free persists. In reality, the censor’s role has been devolved to media owners, who have caved in to the regime’s demands out of either fear or greed. Not all have fallen in line, but their number is sufficient to give credence to the theory that anti-nationals are working to undermine Modi’s India.

Yet, without formally imposing Emergency, the authoritarian model occasionally encounters unforeseen impediments.

For one, it invites the judiciary’s intervention more tellingly than it did during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. An example of this is the Supreme Court’s intervention on August 29, putting on hold the transfer to Pune of the five activists arrested from across the country the previous day. Additionally, in the absence of formal censorship, journalists sharply focus on instances of excesses, as is evident from the extensive coverage the arrest and raids on human rights activists has received in the Indian media.

It would seem that one lesson Modi failed to draw from the Emergency is that all models of authoritarianism have an in-built characteristic – to over-reach. That is why the arrest of five activists on Tuesday has shaken the nation.