In 1975, a Tamilian disguised as a sardar landed up at Ahmedabad Railway Station to escape from the central government. He was met and escorted to a safe house by a 25-year-old who once sold tea on that station’s platform. Freeze that moment in history — Narendra Modi escorting Subramanian Swamy to his safe house — and contrast it to today. What a long way we have come.
Or have we?
I got the above trivia from Coomi Kapoor’s excellent book, The Emergency: A Personal History . Kapoor was a journalist living in Delhi in those days, and though her book was timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Emergency, it is a timely reminder to the damage people drunk on power can do, and the threat such untrammelled power can pose to a nation.
The Emergency began with the filling up of jails. “The number of those in Indira Gandhi’s prisons during the Emergency,” writes Kapoor, “far exceeded the total number jailed during the 1942 Quit India Movement.” This included not just those in the opposition parties but also potential opponents within her own party plus whoever they damn well felt like. (“The entire Sanskrit department of Delhi University was sent to prison.”) Personal vendettas were quickly settled, and torture was common in jails. The exploits of Sanjay Gandhi and his coterie were particularly shameful, such as the millions of forced sterilisations he caused.
The press was silenced. Loren Jenkins of Newsweek wrote, “In ten years of covering the world from Franco’s Spain to Mao’s China, I have never encountered such stringent and all encompassing censorship.” One of the leaders of the opposition, LK Advani, later said that the press “was asked to bend and it chose to crawl.” A permanent dictatorship seemed likely, and we owe much gratitude to the fact that power made Indira delusional, for she called for elections only because she thought she would win. (Indeed, Sanjay was opposed to the decision.)
It is true that a political leader does not need to suspend democracy to devastate a country. Even without the Emergency, Indira would count as one of the worst rulers in our history. Through a series of disastrous economic policies, many of which her deluded partymen still support, she kept tens of millions of people in poverty, and adversely affected all our lives. There are no counterfactuals, of course, and abstract economic arguments do not have the visceral impact of the kind of stories that Kapoor’s excellent book is filled with.
Let’s get back to the present. To many, the general elections of last year felt like a landmark event because Modi’s win seemed to mark a final, clean break from everything that post-Independence Congress represented. He stood for many things to many people, though, and it is worth asking how he is doing after a year in government.
If you’re an economic liberal like me, Modi has been a disappointment. It is with good reason that people are beginning to refer to this government as UPA 3. Modi has not instituted any far-reaching reforms, and the rhetoric of ‘incremental reforms’ does not cut it for me. But it’s fair enough to wait out the five years they have been given before passing judgement.
It is in the domain of personal freedoms that Modi has let the country down. Much of this is due to petty vindictiveness, straight out of the Indira Gandhi playbook. Consider how Teesta Setalvad has been harassed after Modi came to power, the latest salvo being the cancellation of the licence of her NGO. (Why should any organisation need a licence from the government anyway? Wasn’t Modi, the messiah, supposed to do away with this kind of nonsense?) Consider the government’s harassment of NGOs like Greenpeace, and the offloading of Greenpeace campaigner Priya Pillai when she was on her way to England because officials felt she would give India a “negative image” there. Go online, search for videos of the recent Patel uprising in Ahmedabad, and see the shocking brutality with which the police crack down on common people. (The Gujarat government also banned the mobile internet during this time, as well as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.) Consider all the nonsense the fringe elements on the Hindu right are getting up to, and the silence of the government on these issues — the same silence you would get from Indira every time she was confronted with the antics of her psychopathic son Sanjay.
Modi has not declared an Emergency or jailed opponents, but this approach to power does remind me of 1975, and makes me wonder. Many of the prominent political actors of today played small roles in that particular production. Arun Jaitley spent the years of the Emergency in jail. In the hundreds of hours of solitary contemplation that he no doubt had, what did he think about? When the young party worker Narendra Modi guided Subramanian Swamy to his safe house, what did they talk about? Was it about how power corrupts, the necessity to impose limits on it and the tragedy of how politicians in India sought to rule than to serve? Or did they simply say to each other, “Just wait. Just wait till we are on the other side, and we are the ones in charge.”
I suspect it was the latter. And what a loss that is.
Amit Varma is a novelist. He blogs at indiauncut.com