Friday Q&A: Christophe Jaffrelot on what we misunderstand about the Emergency – and how it is relevant in Modi's India

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“[The Emergency] is not a parenthesis because India did not return to the status quo ante in 1977: Congress was structurally changed.

It’s not an aberration because many people supported the Emergency and saw in it a positive development, be they part of the [Communist Party of India], the Shiv Sena or the corporate sector. 

It is somewhat a turning point, as Gyan Prakash argues in his Emergency Chronicles, because, in the wake of the JP Movement, it further contributed to mainstream-ise the Sangh parivar with the help of well-established opposition parties, including the Congress (O), the Socialist Party and the BLD. 

But for us, in fact, the Emergency is still something else, an eye opener. It is revealing, not only of the fragility of democracy, but also of the fact that many people could live with it and had hardly any problem with tyranny, so long as it did not affect them, but the poor. 

Because who were victims of mass sterilisation and “slum rehabilitation”? The poor! For them, the Emergency was neither a parenthesis, nor an aberration or a turning point, but simply more of the same! But for us, the observers, the fact that the Emergency, for most of the people, introduced a difference in degree, not in kind, that’s an eye opener!”

That’s Christophe Jaffrelot, the distinguished political scientist whose new book, India’s First Dictatorship; The Emergency, 1975–1977, co-authored with Pratinav Anil seeks to turn a scholarly eye on a period in the country’s history that has not received sufficient academic scrutiny.

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Christophe Jaffrelot is Avantha Chair and Professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at the King's India Institute, teaches South Asian politics and history at Sciences Po in Paris and is an Overseas Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His work has covered a huge range of South Asian political science subjects, from the role caste mobilisation plays in India to the growth of Hindu nationalism to the influence of Islamic fundamentalism on Pakistani politics.
In his new book, India’s First Dictatorship; The Emergency, 1975–1977, co-authored with Pratinav Anil, Jaffrelot looks back at one of the most significant periods of Indian political history – and yet one that has not received sufficient scholarly scrutiny. Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s two-year Emergency is today generally seen as a blip of authoritarianism in India’s democratic past, as well as the crucible in which the reputations of many of the country’s current and recent leaders were forged.
The book, however, seeks to nuance our understanding of the Emergency, pointing out how differently it played out across the country, both in mofussil India as well as in the South, how it actually received plenty of support from different sections of society and how its after-effects fundamentally changed Indian politics in ways that are not fully acknowledged.
Another insight is how little it mattered for huge portions of society. As the co-authors write in their conclusion,
“Studying the Emergency helps us understand the nature of the Indian polity. For this period reveals both the vulnerabilities and limits of Indian democracy. It is fair to conclude, then, that in subjecting so many of its citizens to such inhumane treatment, the Emergency regime was merely intensifying recognisable trends from the past. In many domains, and for the poor especially, between Indian authoritarianism and Indian democracy there was only a difference in degree…
But the past need not be prologue. Indeed, at a time when a Hindu nationalist authoritarian populism is accentuating, in the manner that the Emergency did, the illiberal aspects of Indian democracy that have been present all along, all the while conforming to the shibboleths of democratic formalism, the task of putting Indian democracy to rights remains more pressing than ever.”
I spoke to Jaffrelot about how this project came about, decades after he first began work on it, what surprised him the most in studying the Emergency, and how he sees the comparison to the authoritarian tendencies visible in India’s ruling politicians today.

Could you tell us a little bit about how this book came to be? It started as a project in the 1990s but is only coming to print in 2020…

Yes, and I’m glad that the book can at last see the light of the day. Till recently, I thought it would not. The story begins in the late 1990s when, after my first book with Hurst on the Sangh Parivar, I signed a contract on the Emergency, a period that appeared to be very much understudied already then. I made some interviews, I collected data – including press reports and the full series of the Statesman Weekly over the period.

But then I was distracted by other topics, including the rise of the OBCs to which I devoted my second book, India’s Silent Revolution. In parallel I had started to read Ambedkar and I could not help but writing an intellectual biography of him… At that time, I had started to do fieldwork in Pakistan and my Pakistan Paradox took me five full years. These books and a dozen of edited volumes that I did with colleagues in parallel prevented me from completing the Emergency book. 

Two things brought it back on my research agenda. First, in the late 2000s, Sunil Khilnani, with whom I was teaching at Johns Hopkins University gave me access to Granville Austin’s papers, that Prof. Austin had given him. Among the most precious documents in this collection were transcripts of the hearings of the Shah Commission in 1977–8. These primary sources, it seemed to us, were not available anywhere else – we have now made them publicly available.

Secondly, soon after, I met one of the most brilliant students I ever had, Pratinav Anil, who was interested in working on this topic and who has been a great partner in crime! Pratinav, who is finishing his PhD at Cambridge is one of the most promising academics I know and this book would have never seen the light of the day without him. It’s a fully jointly authored book.

What drove you to look back at the Emergency right now? Is it a sense that the popular understanding of the Emergency is quite different from what it was actually like? 

This is one of the reasons, but frankly speaking there is no real “popular understanding of the Emergency”. It is like a black box (or black hole!) that people did not want (like?) to open, except those who were in the opposition and who – because they are now in power – tend to paint a rather partisan perspective. But that’s a recent development.

When I embarked on this project, the Emergency, when it was referred to in history textbooks, appeared like a parenthesis or an aberration, as if it was not part of the history of India. In fact, I realised that my students, at Sciences Po or at King’s College did not know what it was – because it is not taught in India and not so much out of India either. We needed a history of the Emergency, I thought – and Pratinav shared this motivation. 

‘The mould of the typical post-Emergency politician was forged in the crucible of the Emergency’, you write in the book. We normally take that to refer to those who fought against it, but you suggest it has as much to do with those who thrived during the Emergency? 

This sentence comes from the conclusion, where we look at the future of some of the guilty men of The Emergency. Our assessment is that Congress was changed by this episode more substantially than it is usually acknowledged, not only because Mrs. Gandhi and Sanjay remained at the helm of the party, but also because many of those who had been recruited by Sanjay remained in the party or returned after some time when they had been expelled, like Bansi Lal and VC Shukla. But the guilty men of the Emergency were also welcome by politicians who had been affected by the Emergency too: V.C. Shukla was Minister of External Affairs in the government of Chandra Shekar in 1990-91.     

Why do you consider it important to look at not only what Emergency changed, but how it, in some ways simply continued or accelerated pre-existing trends in India at that point? 

It is important because it offers an entry point into India’s polity at large. We show in the book that the Emergency was precipitated by the JP Movement and the way the judiciary went after Mrs. Gandhi. But it would have not been possible, she would have not be able to impose it if, for years, she had not prepared the ground for it by centralising power at the expense of the “Congress system” that Nehru had built: in contrast to Nehru’s constant effort to build consensus by negotiating with the state bosses the party was relying upon, she short circuited them after the 1969 split, related directly to the people (as evident from the populist overtone of the 1971 campaign) and appointed yes-men as Chief Ministers or as PCC Presidents.

Having desinstitutionalised the Congress, she could have her MPs vote in favor of the Emergency without even senior ministers saying a word (Jagjivan Ram left in early 1977 when he knew he had nothing to lose). In a way Mrs. Gandhi presided over the transformation of Congress in a manner that BJP is emulating today – and the Congress never fully recovered from this process.         

What did you manage to learn about how the Emergency played out away from Delhi, whether in the North Indian mofussil or in states further from the Centre, like in the South or the North East? 

This is one of our great achievements, I must say. We show that there is not ONE Emergency: it varies in the course of time – and there is a difference between 1975 and 1976 when Sanjay Gandhi asserts himself at the helm of the Youth Congress and as the driving force of the regime, really; but it varies also in terms of space.

The geography of the Emergency is overdetermined by three factors: one, the proximity from Delhi, the epicenter, which explains that the most badly affected areas (in terms of sterilisations for instance) were found in Haryana and West UP; two, the degree of docility of the Congress Chief Ministers: ND Tiwari was a sycophant, not Devraj Urs – who had a base, in contrast to all those who were creatures of Mrs. Gandhi and Sanjay, like Tiwari; three, the resilience of opposition governments: never forget that for months, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu were not governed by Congress. President’s Rule was imposed there in 1976 only. These states did not experience the same kind of Emergency either. These differences explain why in 1977 the Congress was wiped out in the Hindi belt, but resisted well elsewhere, and in the South in particular.      

What do you think we misunderstand about the struggle against Emergency today, especially since the popular narratives of many of our current leaders rests on the role they claim to have played in it? 

Today, the dominant narrative tends to present the Emergency as a ferocious tyranny that was due to Mrs. Gandhi and Sanjay only and its opponents as ready to sacrifice everything in this fight. Some did. In the book we give long lists and details of the martyr of those who suffered in torture chambers, including the Fernandes brothers.

But many leaders tried to negotiate with Mrs. Gandhi. Balasaheb Deoras, the RSS chief is a case in point, as evident from the two letters he sent to her, where he offered to cooperate with her in exchange of the lifting of the ban affecting his organisation. But he was not the only one and, in fact, opposition parties continued to take part in the Lok Sabha sessions, giving legitimacy to the laws that were passed there.

Madhu Limaye, whom I interviewed before he died and who was one of the most committed opponents to the Emergency, told them to boycott parliament from jail, but they preferred to keep their kursi. In fact, those who fought the Emergency were very few, something Kuldip Nayar emphasises in his book, The Judgement – where he says that the weakness of the opposition came as a surprise to him.

Beyond the ambivalence of the political opposition, many other players fell in line or even actively supported the Emergency. The corporate sector was a case in point because it approved the “era of discipline” that Mrs. Gandhi was heralding. The heads of all the industrial houses eulogised her and Sanjay when they made the number of strikes diminish rapidly, following what we describe as an authoritarian corporatist policy.

In the media, except the Indian Express and the Statesman, most of the mainstream newspapers endorsed the new dispensation. Some of the reports and interviews of Sanjay – a man of few words to say the least – are unbelievable. And people could not believe they had actually taken place if history was not repeating itself today. In the bureaucracy, few officers resigned in spite of the fact that they were the real implementers of the Emergency - and its atrocities. In the judiciary, except Fali S Nariman, who was then additional solicitor general, we could not find anybody who resigned. In fact, Justice Khanna was the only judge of the Supreme Court who saved his (and its?) honour as the dissenting judge in the Habeas Corpus case in which, for a majority of the judges, personal liberties did not need to be upheld in the face of the executive in the context of the Emergency.

And Arvind Rajagopal has shown that the middle class, that remained largely unaffected but appreciated that trains were on time, usually supported the Emergency. If many academics fought against the Emergency, several intellectuals (including Kushwant Singh) found it some raison d’être, including, for the most secular-minded, the threat that the RSS-backed JP Movement posed to democracy. Last but not least, Congress was not the only party involved the Emergency, the CPI, the Shiv Sena and the main faction of the RPI were too. The situation, therefore, was more complex than it seems a priori: Mrs. Gandhi and Sanjay were not alone!      

Having completed this work, where do you situate the Emergency within the broader story of Indian democracy – parenthesis, aberration, turning point, or something else? 

It’s not a parenthesis because India did not return to the status quo ante in 1977: Congress was structurally changed. It’s not an aberration because many people supported the Emergency and saw in it a positive development, be they part of the CPI, the Shiv Sena or the corporate sector. 

It is somewhat a turning point, as Gyan Prakash argues in his Emergency Chronicles, because, in the wake of the JP Movement, it further contributed to mainstream-ise the Sangh parivar with the help of well-established opposition parties, including the Congress (O), the Socialist Party and the BLD. 

But for us, in fact, the Emergency is still something else, an eye opener. It is revealing, not only of the fragility of democracy, but also of the fact that many people could live with it and had hardly any problem with tyranny, so long as it did not affect them, but the poor. 

Because who were victims of mass sterilisation and “slum rehabilitation”? The poor! For them, the Emergency was neither a parenthesis, nor an aberration or a turning point, but simply more of the same! But for us, the observers, the fact that the Emergency, for most of the people, introduced a difference in degree, not in kind, that’s an eye opener!     

If I can be cheeky/direct – why ‘first’ dictatorship in the title? 

The title was found by Michael Dwyer, my publisher for 25 years, at Hurst. It makes sense simply because there may be others dictatorships! We tend to overlook this possibility, but democracy is fragile everywhere, as the American elections are reminding us.

India is no exception. Its institutions are not as robust as people thought before the 2014 elections, be it the judiciary, the Election Commission, the CVC, the CBI or the Parliament. In each and every domain, the Executive tends to prevail, to appoint “friends”, sideline non-sympathisers or even harass them. Who would have imagined that Anand Teltumbde and so many others could be in jail today? That so many people could be arrested in the name of seddition? India used to be known for its sense of dissent.

Not only that, but money plays such a huge role in Indian politics that it has clearly become an uneven playing field, all the more so as the media, partly because of money too, are losing their independence. And of course, minorities becoming second class citizens, the country is emulating a political system that Israel has invented, and that is a contradiction in terms, the “ethnic democracy model” where some are more equal than others, to paraphrase George Orwell, the author we need to re-read today.    

It has been common for some time now to declare that India under Modi is in an ‘undeclared Emergency’ or has taken an illiberal turn that doesn’t even require a declaration. Having studied that period how do you read these statements? Is there a parallel, or are we undergoing something considerably different, particularly with regards to ideology? 

The parallel that can be readily made pertains to the styles of Mrs Gandhi and Narendra Modi. Both are illustrative of variants of populism. Mrs Gandhi’s repertoire fits in left populism (like [former Pakistan Prime Minister] Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s at the same time), whereas Narendra Modi’s politics belongs to what political scientists calls national-populism, a form of populism where “the people” is made of an ethnic majority (hence the notion of majoritarianism).

But both leaders have circumvented intermediaries (including their parties) in order to relate directly to the people the populist way. Mrs Gandhi used the radio, whereas today there are many other channels of communication, including social media and TV that Narendra Modi uses a lot. And, of course, both have systematically taken India by storm at the time of election campaigns, valorising their image and their body language on stage more than most of the other PMs of the country. 

Both speak very emotionally, even affectively (Mrs. Gandhi loved to say “Sisters and brothers” every now and then too), and they speak to the poor first, to emphasise their own weaknesses, as if they were sharing the same vulnerability with the poor. This sense of vulnerability can be explained: Mrs. Gandhi felt unsecure because the Syndicate tried to clip her wings and Narendra Modi has had to do with the Indian judiciary for many years after 2002.

In both cases, this repertoire culminates in a rhetoric of victimhood as both, Mrs. Gandhi and Narendra Modi claimed that they were targeted by the establishment (the Syndicate for the former, the “Delhi Sultanate” for the latter, when he was CM). And they claimed that they were/are targeted to such an extent that their life is in danger. This is typical of populism, a register where the leader tries to appear the closest he or she can to the people who feel victims themselves.

But the populist combines this dimension with a great strength – a strength that is almost superhuman: he or she is a hero, a quality that finds expression in exceptional, disruptive moves – because the populist’s legitimacy comes from his or her charisma, a gift that Max Weber defines by one word ‘exceptionality’ (and that is neither good nor bad). Mrs Gandhi and Narendra Modi have done things nobody dared to do before: she split Congress in 1969, she broke Pakistan in 1971, she annexed Sikkim in 1974 and she declared the Emergency in 1975.

Similarly, Modi was CM of Gujarat when unprecedented communal violence since Partition took place in the state and never said sorry, he decided demonetisation, he launched the Balakot attack against Pakistan. These Janus-like figures who are close to the people but exceptionally strong at the same time exert a clear fascination in some countries, including India, and explain why they seem to stand beyond accountability: they cannot be wrong and they are not punished by the voters, even when they do not deliver on their promises – which are many because populists are demagogues. By contrast, the unassuming Manmohan Singh who has done more than anybody since Nehru for India’s development is not respected the same way.

But these affinities between Mrs Gandhi and Narendra Modi are not sufficient to do justice to your question, because you are asking about whether today’s political system resembles the one that prevailed during the Emergency. Yes and no. Yes, because populists are bound to be authoritarian.

First, they claim that they are the people which means that they concentrate all the power, along with a small number of people (Mrs Gandhi shared power with Sanjay and few other confidents, Narendra Modi shares power with Amit Shah and an equally small member of collaborators).

Second, being the people, they also dismiss the opposition as irrelevant: they delegitimise their opponents who become enemies, not only to them, but to the nation. Mrs Gandhi accused the opposition of being “anti-national” the same way Narendra Modi fights for a “Congress-free India”.

Third, some of the means used by both leaders are similar: draconian laws like MISA and UAPA, IT raids against opponents and pressures on the media (much more sophisticated today than during the Emergency when censorship was imposed).

Fourth, in spite of the pro-poor discourse, both leaders have been close to big industrial houses who have been the face of crony capitalism. In fact the poor have not benefited much under both dispensations in terms of financial redistribution. They have mostly profited by what I call “a politics of dignity” that has resulted in the allocation of some house sites during the Emergency and latrines or gas cylinders under Modi.

Beyond these similitudes, there are huge differences.

First, political prisoners were many more during the Emergency, when up to 100 000 people were sent to jail because they belonged to a party or a trade union. Some of them died because of torture. Secondly, the Constitution had been amended to such an extent that it was hardly recognisable in 1976. Thirdly, both things explain why Parliament had lost all meaningful power. Fourthly, general elections had been postponed two times. Lastly, and most importantly, Mrs Gandhi had no long-term plan when she declared the Emergency, a desperate move to remain in power – and she could only rely on a very poorly structured political party.

By contrast, Narendra Modi has conquered power for institutionalising an ideology – Hindu nationalism - and he can rely on the Sangh parivar for making it happen. The temporality of the two regimes is completely different: Mrs Gandhi did not consider that the Emergency was “the new normal” and she withdrew it after 18 months. The Hindu nationalist movement has a long-term perspective and is changing India more than any other political force since Mahatma Gandhi’s Congress.       

A number of students and researchers read this newsletter. What further work on this period would you like to see done? 

We need to understand more deeply why Mrs Gandhi and Sanjay remained popular – so much so that they could win the 1980 elections. For that, we need ethnographic studies that could tell us more how people saw them. Emma Tarlo’s work in Delhi’s slums shows that the poor did not hold them accountable for what had happened. How is it possible? We need more studies of that kind, before those who have gone through this phase of India’s history leave this world.  

Was there anything that jumped out or truly surprised you during your work on this book? 

Many things were surprising: the absence of resistance to authoritarianism within Congress and in society at large; the way Mrs Gandhi related to Sanjay (and we have a long section on this psychological relationship in the book); the ferocity of mass sterilisation; the Turkman Gate episode, that Ajoy Bose and John Dayal narrate so vividly in For Reasons of State; the attitude of leaders, including JP, who helped RSS men to join mainstream politics before, during and after the Emergency…

But what was unexpected was the attitude of what we call the international community. As Rudra Chaudhuri shows in a seminal article we use a lot, no major country blamed Mrs Gandhi for a long time and multilateral organisations did not either, including the World Bank that had recommended some sterilisation drives before – and which approved the way Mrs Gandhi was handling industrial relations during the Emergency.

For the West, India was, a last, adopting a more business-friendly approach of the economy and even free market economy … There, criticisms came mostly from the media, the diaspora and human rights organisations. And, along with Mrs Gandhi’s foreign friends, they were probably responsible for her reassessment of the Emergency in late 1976-early 1977. It is very difficult to know why she lifted the Emergency, exactly.

She realised, possibly, that Sanjay’s sterilisation plans were going too far when the astounding figure of 8 million people was reached. But she was definitely affected by the image of India that the foreign media was publicising and which forced foreign governments to somewhat change their stance on India. Interestingly, the situation is not totally dissimilar today – except that the world has changed, as evident from the election of Donald Trump, one of Narendra Modi’s international partners, in 2016: Trump could be in Delhi during the February riots and say what he said....     

What misconceptions about this period of time do you find yourself combating the most when talking to students, journalists, scholars? 

One thing we need to revisit is the idea of Indian socialism. How socialist was India under Mrs Gandhi, before, during and after the Emergency? The more I study this period, the more I think that a myth has been built there, not only by the friends of Congress, but also by its enemies who try to demonise the party!

More than a socialist, I think that Mrs Gandhi, initially at least, was statist. Certainly, she had not studied and read much and she candidly admitted that she was not interested in ideology anyway. But in her practices, she retained mostly one dimension of socialism: the overarching role of the state – possibly because she was a control freak and because of her sense of insecurity. Redistribution policies remained very elusive. Not necessarily because of her only.

In fact, she had tried to reform the Congress after 1969 in order to transform it into a cadre-based party working on the ground to transform society, but she had failed and many conservative notables who had gone to Congress (O) were welcome back as early as 1972 to win state elections.

But Congress remained a rather conservative party in socio-economic terms also because of its proximity with industrial houses, be they old, like KK Birla’s, or emerging like Dirubhai Ambani’s. During the Emergency, Sanjay openly expressed his faith in capitalism – so candidly that the CPI, an ally of the Congress, had to react publicly.        

If India was definitely not on the left in terms of its socio-economic policy under Mrs Gandhi, she continued Nehru’s tradition of secularism, at least till the 1970s. The ideological motivation for imposing the Emergency that she articulates the most clearly came from her commitment to secularism. She argued – and rightly so – that the main force behind the JP Movement was the RSS and that fighting this movement was necessary to save a multicultural democracy. The Nehru-Gandhis have remained committed to secularism and are the only national political leaders who have never collaborated with the Jana Sangh or the BJP at any level.

Could you give us three recommendations for things to read/watch/listen to for those interested in the Emergency, beyond your book?

A biography: Vinod Mehta’s, The Sanjay Story,

An autobiography: Kuldip Nayar’s, The Judgement,

A fiction: Rohinton Mistry’s, A fine balance

Optional: a document, An era of discipline, that helps to figure out what authoritarianism is about…