Can Emergency Be Reimposed?
Ideology-less veneration of the powerful continues to be India’s Achilles heel
BJP eminence L K Advani recently made the startling comment that he didn’t have the confidence that the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi 40 years ago `cannot happen again’. One of the reasons he advanced was particularly interesting.There are no signs in the Indian polity , he said, which assured him that the Emergency was a thing of the past.What is it about our `polity’ that seems to be worrying Advani? We are the world’s largest functioning democracy; we have a Constitution whose democratic fundamentals have by and large been well protected, including by a vibrant judiciary; we have a mostly unfettered media; and, civil society, although still not as strong as it should be, is far from being dormant. In 1975, when the Emergency was imposed, our democracy was inexperienced and young. Today, democratic institutions are arguably much stronger and people’s vigilance higher.

To my mind ­ and i don’t know if this is what Advani also had in mind ­ the Achilles heel of our polity continues to be the ideology-less veneration of the powerful. Accommodation with the power of the moment, and pursuit of the visible benefits that accrue from such accommodation such as influence, status, upward mobility and enhanced income, is ubiquitous and seems to have almost social sanction. To compromise with principles in order to obtain such desirable dividends rarely invites social derision; in fact, it usually evokes envy or admiration for the successful agility of the beneficiary.

The consequence of such an approach is a curious notion of `loyalty’ to the powerful unfettered by notions of rectitude.Principles have no role and ideology even less. Loyalty is judged merely by its efficaciousness to yield material rewards, an amoral transaction with power entirely for the furtherance of self-interest.

With his usual insight, Tulsidasa puts his finger on the pulse: Sur nara muni sab ki yeha riti, swaratha lagi karahin sab priti (Gods, men and saints, the practice is the same; self-interest is behind their loyalty). The Chandogya Upanishad is even more blunt. Power, it says, “is superior to knowledge“.

This proclivity to bow before power and the powerful creates undemocratic behavioural patterns. Of these, sycophancy is the most distinctive. In our country there appears to be social acceptance of the fact that the powerful need to have their egos massaged, and that supplicants must fulfil this vital need.

Sociologist M N Srinivas observed this long ago. In his path-breaking anthropological study published in 1988 of a village in Karnataka he writes: “Agreeing with a superior and flattering him were approved if not prescribed ways of getting on, and every patron attracted one or more flatterers.“ No wonder then that the words chamcha or sycophant and maska or flattery are understood all over India.

The humiliating body language of the chamcha and the hubris of the pa tron, are all part of a carefully choreographed code of sanctioned behaviour that reinforces the tendency of people to capitulate before what they know to be wrong, and even worse, endorse it without any twinge to their conscience.

Is this why , when Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency on 24 June, 1975, she did not face any real opposition ­ except for a handful of honourable exceptions ­ from those within her Cabinet or her secretariat or her advisers? Is this also why there was not even a semblance of protest by the great Indian intelligentsia and its educated hangers on?
Till 24 hours ago they had emphatically added their articulate voices to the cacophony of righteous condemnation of Indira’s undemocratic ways. Now, they gave proof of the strength of their `ideological’ convictions by crawling when they had only been asked to bend.Some intellectuals remained critical in their personal assessment, but even they chose silence as the better part of valour.

Has our polity changed today, or have we ­ and especially the political class ­ devised even more ingenious ways to unquestioningly supplicate before the powerful? Has political sycophancy decreased? Do most political parties nurture healthy traditions of dissent and debate? Has the number of absolute leaders decreased, and has the tribe of absolute followers dwindled? The answer to all these questions is, i am afraid, largely a resounding `no’. Perhaps that is why Advani feels that subversion of democracy cannot be ruled out in the future.

The sidelined octogenarian leader could as well have had the BJP’s current leader in mind. No one knows better than Advani the authoritarian streak in Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He has watched what happened to those who opposed Modi in Gujarat. He is witness to what happens to those who oppose him in New Delhi. Indeed, he is a victim himself.

He is also privy to how much his own party has morphed into a one-man party .In the pervasive political culture of degrading political sycophancy , BJP can no longer claim to be an exception.What will be the checks to its absolute ruler now that he has an absolute parliamentary majority?
Forty years from the Emergency our democracy has far greater institutional strength to resist authoritarianism. But, perhaps, the doubts of a seasoned leader like Advani should be kept in mind. As the French saying goes: The more things change, the more they remain the same.

The writer , a former diplomat, represents JD(U) in Rajya Sabha