25.6.15

Book review : In the name of democracy by Bipin Chandra

The 40th anniversary of the Internal Emergency seems like a good time to review Bipan Chandra's In the Name of Democracy - JP Movement and the Emergency

Indira Gandhi's emergency swept aside opposition parties, emasculated people (literally) and ended up being one of the blackest spots on our young democracy. It's direct roots, though, lie in two major events of the first half of the 1970s. Firstly, there was the rotten economic conditions in India with sky-rocketing prices and high inflation. The nationalisation of major corporations was in full steam , private entrepreneurs were being systemically wiped out and unemployment was on the rise.  Many of the reforms instituted by successive Congress governments at the center couldn't arrest the corruption rampant in the polity. There was a major economic divide not only among the different classes but also the different states and castes. The book does a good job of placing this economic state in context and offers a good insight into the state of the country before the emergency.

In this volatile environment stepped in Jaiprakash Narayan with the clarion call to wipe out corruption, reduce unemployment and bring down prices. Someone once said, to be a mass leader in India you have to be worshipped as a saint. JP fit that bill really well. A freedom fighter of renown, JP also was an incorruptible Gandhian. His call was heard across the populous state of Bihar and led to a mass movement which caught all political parties off-guard. After the great linguistic movements, this was a movement which threatened to rupture the fabric of democratic institutions in India. The author does a good job of collecting newspaper articles, private correspondence and records of speeches to describe the nature of the movement. With their demands for immediate redressal, intimidation of public officials and direct challenge to duly elected assemblies, the JP movement was a idealistic and short-sighted attack on our young democracy.

Bipan Chandra does a good job of threading together multiple sources and presenting the factual positions of people in the eye of the storm on both camps. He goes further on to analyse the roles of the leadership in the two camps. A major part of the book is focussed on the leadership abilities (or lack of in the author's opinion) of JP. JP comes across as an old man who blatantly encouraged a negative attitude towards representative democracy and elected officials. Forever preaching a cleaning up of corruption and communist influences, JP comes across as a leader unable to manage or control the revolution led on his behalf. The author effectively argues that JP had misread the emotions of the nation and had persuaded himself that a revolution - which he was the obvious leader of - was nigh and in a hurry to cement his position in history, he turned to direct demands for the prime minister's resignation which precipitated the emergency. Chandra's nuanced appraisal of JP, mostly scorn mixed with some admiration, is worth the read irrespective of what side of the divide one is on.

His other appraisal of the leaders in the governments role comes across as being a little short and more speculative. One problem is the secret nature of most of the documents and conversations of the upper echelons of the government. The naming and shaming of Sanjay Gandhi as the primary cause of the excesses of emergency tries to deflect some attention from Indira Gandhi's actions. The author carefully catalogs the actions of the government and lays out a case for why Emergency was inevitable in the charged atmosphere of the 70s. In the latter half of the book, the author goes into much detail of the successes of the emergency - however fleeting - in putting the economy back on track. This was an interesting read as it went some way in explaining the mystery of why people who were in Mumbai never seemed to feel the pinch of the emergency as much as someone in Delhi.

The most interesting part of the book is of course the hypothetical debate on the nature of the leadership. JP had let his leftist movement's leadership slip from his hands and into the hands of the RSS and other right-wing organizations. The political opportunism that led these opposition parties to band with JP is neither unexpected nor unknown. The author argues that if the movement had succeeded with this leadership India would have fatally titled away from democracy and towards fascism. He also takes the speculation a step forwards and imagines the rule of Sanjay and his coterie which would also lean far right, if their few months in Indira's kitchen cabinet were any indication. It is horrifyingly fascinating to imagine a right wing India with constrained freedoms and arbitrary rule by a gang of thugs whatever their professed political affiliation. The author does a good job of painting such a picture for the reader.

In a well written book the late historian argues for a nuanced evaluation of the Internal emergency that was promulgated in India on that fateful summer day 40 years ago today. It's well worth the read to understand the flow of events that led to the imposition of Emergency and its abrupt end. The parallels to the Anna Hazare movement is surprising. It is intriguing that a generation of Indians had to deal with 2 such quick fix movements which tried really hard to strike at the very roots of Indian democracy, with idealistic leaders who initially refused to convert their role from demagoguery to governance, but nevertheless tried hard to bring down elected governments and the final crackdown of the central government. The book is written before these events, so one can only imagine how the author would have drawn parallels.

There is one mystery though the author is unable to shed any light on - why did Indira end the emergency? If, and that is a big if, the private papers of Indira (who knows if they exist) are released by the government, they would make a fascinating read. The Emergency was a black mark on India's fledgling democracy. It has to be treated as a practical lesson in how a government when pushed into a corner, can work within the framework of the constitution and take away freedoms from people. It is also another objective lesson on how the nameless bureaucrat can be a source of great distress in the name of "doing one's duty". It's a fascinating period and anyone trying to understand India's democratic institutions should read more about it.

Well worth a read. 3.5 stars for it's lack of deeper study of the Indira coterie, but its really good evaluation of .