Indian Exceptionalism and Its Allies

August 8, 2021   •   By Arvind Rajagopal

India’s First Dictatorship: The Emergency, 1975–1977

Christophe Jaffrelot and Pratinav Anil

IT TOOK A president and a plague to show up the idea of American exceptionalism as partial and flawed. Then it was India’s turn.


A surge of COVID-19 cases this spring and summer has marred the reputation of the current prime minister, Hindu strongman Narendra Modi, who boasts of a 56-inch chest, and defines national identity by excluding Muslims, of whom there are more in India than in most other countries. But there was another reckoning in recent memory that called India’s status as a vibrant electoral democracy into question: the Emergency, imposed by former prime minister Indira Gandhi in the mid-1970s.


What was the Emergency? A period of 21 months between June 1975 and March 1977 when the government suspended civil liberties, jailed over 110,000 opposition leaders and dissidents, and censored the press. Indira Gandhi invoked a provision in the Indian Constitution to argue that a state of emergency was needed to ensure discipline and restore order. The rationale? Political corruption and economic distress, leading to unprecedented public protest. The nation’s enemies threatened to break the country apart, Prime Minister Gandhi declared. Simultaneously, she announced programs of land reform, price control, increased productivity, family planning, and city beautification. Few pro-poor policies were actually implemented, however. Rather, the Emergency is remembered in scholarship for its arbitrary violence and privatization of public authority.


In their impressively researched new book, India’s First Dictatorship: The Emergency, 1975–1977, Christophe Jaffrelot and Pratinav Anil make the surprising argument that the Emergency actually made little difference to most Indians. Authoritarian tendencies and a lack of democratic culture were longstanding features in Indian politics, they write. Forced sterilization to curtail birth rates and slum demolition to “beautify” cities existed before, during, and after the Emergency. The Emergency “merely intensif[ied] recognisable trends from the past,” they argue.


One development from that time has had major implications nonetheless: the rise of the Hindu nationalist grassroots organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (also known as the National Volunteer Organization or RSS), which won respectability for its role in mobilizing opposition to the Emergency. The organization that had been banned in 1948–’49 for its close association with Mahatma Gandhi’s assassins provides the cadre of today’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Prime Minister Gandhi banned the organization again during the Emergency, as a “communal” and hence antinational outfit. Hindu nationalists now seek to rewrite Indian history with themselves as the key agent, turning the former ruling party, the Congress, into a neocolonial pretender that deserves to be ousted from politics altogether.


That this was perhaps the Emergency’s key legacy became clear only later and could not be read from the evidence of that time alone. Hindu nationalists did join the political mainstream, the authors concede, but the implications are beyond their tight focus, since it was more than a decade later that the BJP came to power. Instead the authors concentrate on the event, arguing that there was no ideology or doctrinal consistency to the Emergency and that an atmosphere of depoliticization characterized the period:


This resulted partly from the absence of ideological consistency on the part of the ruling class, for it becomes considerably more difficult to think and act politically when confronted with a regime that follows no clear doctrine. Moreover, and more generally, depoliticisation is an upshot of the authoritarian rejection of intellectual debates and ideas; these are unwelcome because they foster dissent.


Mrs. Gandhi sought to create a depoliticized republic with the 1975–’77 Emergency, it is true, but at the same time she aimed to politicize society, with coercive policies affecting daily life; it was the reaction to these policies that unseated her government. A quick way to indicate this is to note the Emergency’s watchwords, which were “socialism” and “secularism,” incorporated into the Indian Constitution’s Preamble in 1976. Jaffrelot and Anil suggest these words did not translate into meaningful action at the time and hence discount them. But power was exercised in the name of these ideas, ideas that ceased to be invoked by any ruling party after the Emergency. The tide was turning against state-led developmentalism and in favor of business interests, with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher getting the government “off the people’s backs.” The rules of politics were being transformed. Socialism’s political defeat had far-reaching ideological consequences. Market entrepreneurs replaced the common men and women idealized by the Congress Party at least in name, in their slogan, jai jawan, jai kisan: victory to the soldier, victory to the farmer.


The electoral rejection of the Emergency was a major event for at least two reasons. Indian politics had been ruled continuously by the Congress Party, which had led the freedom struggle. Their rout not only allowed new social and political groups to effloresce but also opened a question: how was the nation to be defined? To cut a long story short, over the next several years, a struggle between lower- and upper-caste parties led eventually to Hindu nationalism’s triumph. Prominently, business interests, which were usually upper caste, saw Hindu nationalism as the successor to the Congress’s socialism and secularism and succeeded in influencing state policy in their own favor. Culture and religion, previously considered private, became sites of public significance. Upper caste minorities claiming Hindu hurt began to speak on behalf of the nation as a whole. In the process, society, rather than the state, became the effective site of politics.


This major shift in national politics was triggered by the Emergency, but the authors, both political scientists, have unfortunately missed it. Instead, they are mired in scholastic debates trying to classify the Indira Gandhi Emergency regime. Was it authoritarian, totalitarian, or “sultanist”? Such an approach takes the authors away from comprehending the longer-term historical shifts that are in part camouflaged precisely to evade easy categorization. Though no study before theirs has spilled more ink on the Emergency, the authors’ concluding argument is puzzlingly null, saying that the event represented little of lasting significance.


Authoritarian tendencies and a lack of democratic culture were longstanding features in Indian politics, they argue. Hindu nationalists did join the political mainstream, they concede, but the implications are beyond the scope of the book’s tight focus, since it was not until more than a decade later that the BJP came to power. We are given a mountain of evidence but only a molehill in terms of a takeaway.


The problem is the authors are looking for answers in the wrong place. If the majority of Indians did not perceive the Emergency as changing anything, it is because the change happened behind closed doors. The Emergency represented the last time that state reason proclaimed its superiority to popular understanding and used violence to reinforce its pronouncements. Thereafter, public opinion was enthroned, and ruling parties learned never to belittle it again. State power hid behind popular enthusiasm, which was cultivated and even simulated as technological capacity grew. Today, far greater abuses of power have become routine in India but without even the pretense of a legal or political rationale. In other words, the lessons learned from India’s first dictatorship ensured that the next time around, any candidate for the title of dictator would look and feel very different.


Part of the challenge the authors face is that historians of India have only recently begun to analyze the post-Independence era. India achieved its democracy through anticolonial struggle — this had long been the accepted story, but now a Hindu nationalist party has declared itself the rightful ruler. No national opposition worth the name exists at the moment. Civil society groups have been terrorized into quiescence. How did we get here? Analyzing the Emergency can provide important answers to that question, but the authors have missed the forest for the trees and lost their way.


In balance, this volume is a valuable compendium on a period that many scholars, including myself, have written about. It appears at a time of growing intellectual interest in India, at a time when India is no longer a sideshow in the Cold War but a country aspiring to great power, soon to overtake China as the most populous in the world. Unlike 45 years ago, Indians today form one of the most affluent and influential diasporic communities in the United States and United Kingdom.


Criticism of China may always find a receptive audience, but this is not so for India, whose government tends to receive gentle and nuanced scrutiny by comparison. The present volume is unfortunately no exception: its historical reconstruction represents a yet unmatched attempt to convey the elements of the Emergency in their many-sided complexity. The applied theories will please those familiar with the relevant literature in political science on varieties of authoritarianism. But those who hold India as an exception in its continued democracy will find a mirror image in this book — it was never a democracy and hence never an exception.


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Arvind Rajagopal teaches at New York University and is author of, among other works, the prize-winning Politics After Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Public in India. His latest book, on a global history of media theory, is under contract with Duke University Press.