Monday, June 22, 2015

A repeat of Emergency?

L K Advani's comments on the chances of the country having to re-live the nightmare of Indira Gandhi's rule of 1975-77 have been viewed in the immediate political context, sparking speculation on whether they were intended as a comment on the prime minister. Mr Advani has clarified that such was not his intent, although he has made some other barbed comments that are more obviously a comment on Narendra Modi. But who Mr Advani's target may or may not be is merely the stuff of everyday politics; what is important is the substance of his comment, and the systemic question of whether the hijacking of the Constitution that happened during 1975-77 is possible in contemporary India.

In important ways, a repeat of that nightmare of 40 years ago - brought to life most recently by Coomi Kapoor's book on that period - is unlikely for the simple reason that one person and one party do not dominate the political landscape the way and the did in the 1970s. She had a two-thirds majority in Parliament and control of almost all state governments. Today, the has a bare majority in the and none in the Rajya Sabha. A two-thirds majority for a ruling combine in the is unlikely in most scenarios for the future. No one party can, therefore, ram through controversial legislation, let alone any amendment to the Constitution.

Second, no one party controls all state governments; the two leading national parties and a variety of state parties do that. Therefore, arresting all and sundry and gagging the media is not possible in the manner done in June 1975 (since police is a state subject). A putative dictator could, of course, dismiss all inconvenient state governments, but the Supreme Court has struck down such arbitrary action in the past. Meanwhile, the birth of the internet and the popularity of social media make complete clampdown on information flow next to impossible - without which a dictatorship would find it hard to control events. Finally, the Supreme Court had been packed in the - three judges were superseded to select a pliant chief justice. A repeat exercise is inconceivable when formal processes are being set in place for the selection of judges. None of this makes a repeat Emergency impossible; what it does is more or less rule it out for the foreseeable future.

Other institutional safeguards may be less than effective, like the and the Press Council. The mainstream press has made its compromises for a variety of reasons, but the secondary press (especially in the digital space) is a growing force. Civil society is stronger, too. The greatest weakness, though, lies in the culture of sycophancy that has spread in one-person or one-family dominant political parties, including at state level. Party bosses acting as though they are above the law is, therefore, not the rare event one would want it to be.

The question to ask, though, is whether you need an Emergency to impinge on human rights and civil liberties. The country may not have one-person or one-party rule, but the essence of a democracy has been getting diluted. Those with criminal histories are routinely nominated by the leading parties and elected to legislatures; can you really expect them to be great upholders of the law? Muslim representation in the Lok Sabha is at a multi-decade low, so its representativeness has suffered. The room for dissenting voices has shrunk, given the expanded definition of what is considered unacceptable in the worlds of the arts and literature. Corruption is not unknown in the lower courts. A journalist who took on a minister was burnt to death the other day. Non-governmental organisations are being squeezed on funding, and the home ministry has actually sought to take away the broadcasting rights of a large media organisation - fortunately, the attorney general has said this would be illegal. Women's freedoms are under attack from traditionalist male forces. The police force remains unreformed. There are many ways in which the institutional protection of civil liberties and fundamental freedoms can be buttressed. It is a task that awaits attention.

No comments: