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December 7, 1998


E-Mail this column to a friend Vir Sanghvi

Congress must draw inspiration from Nehru's achievements, not Indira's mistakes

Poor Mani Shankar Aiyar. Last fortnight an enterprising journalist asked the newly appointed Congress spokesman about the Emergency. In Congress terms, this is the equivalent of the ''have you stopped beating your wife?'' question. If you say (what Mani probably believes) that the Emergency was a disgraceful chapter in our history and a blot on our democratic record, then the chamchas sprint from Akbar Road to 10 Janpath shouting, "Dekho Madamji, Madamji, he has insulted your mother-in-law only.'' End of promising career as Congress spokesman.

If on the other hand, you offer the kind of measured response that Mani served up -- the Emergency was justified but Indira Gandhi herself sought democratic ratification from the people and when this wasn't forthcoming, stepped down -- you come across as a rather pathetic apologist for one of Indira Gandhi's dodgier actions.

The prime minister himself decides to turn your reply into an election issue, stands on a podium, blinks his eyes, waves his arms and accuses you of having no respect for democracy.

Whatever you say, you are screwed anyway.

The problem is not Mani Shankar Aiyar's alone. It afflicts the entire political system. It is all very well for V C Shukla and R K Dhawan to defend the Emergency -- they did very nicely out of it, thank you -- but the list of defenders of that period goes beyond the Congress.

What about V P Singh who stayed a loyal Congressman during the Emergency and sided with Indira Gandhi when the Congress finally threw her out? What about Rangarajan Kumarmangalam, now a minister in the Bharatiya Janata Party government and the party's rising star in Tamil Nadu? I don't recall him opposing the Emergency in his Congress days. What about Bansi Lal, now chief minister of Haryana, ally of the BJP and opponent of the Congress? He was the right hand man of the Emergency's hoodlum-in-chief, Sanjay Gandhi. What, indeed, of this government's Minister for Social Justice and Welfare Maneka Gandhi, who spent this period as the yuvrani of Safdarjung Road?

Not one of these people has ever offered a satisfactory explanation for his or her behaviour during the Emergency. V P Singh looks the other way when the question is asked. Maneka Gandhi says that she was too young to realise what was happening. (Poor dear. And she couldn't even read about it in the newspapers because her husband was busy censoring them.) Bansi Lal is incapable of any serious political discourse so I don't suppose too many people have bothered to ask him that question but that does not alter the despicable role he played during that period.

The truth is that when it comes to the Emergency, everyone is painted in shades of grey. No party or alliance can claim to have behaved entirely perfectly during that period or during its aftermath. Even George Fernandes, in many ways one of the true heroes of the anti-Emergency movement, then muddied his record by aligning with Charan Singh to pull down the Janata government so that a new government of defectors could be sworn in with the support of the same Sanjay and Indira he had spent so much time abusing.

Hence the ambiguities; hence the lack of clear-cut responses and hence poor Mani Shankar Aiyar's dilemma.

I suspect the time has now come for us to evolve a consensus on the Emergency. Within the Congress, there are two schools of thought. One, represented by the hard-liners, takes the line that India was in danger (all that old nonsense about the armed forces having been asked to revolt is usually trotted out) and that there was no alternative to the Emergency. The second view represented, I would imagine, by the likes of Mani Shankar Aiyar and Sonia Gandhi (who, along with her husband is reported to have disapproved of the entire Sanjay phenomenon including its forget-all-this-democracy-stuff subtext), holds that the Emergency was a mistake. Indira Gandhi was insecure and frightened and was pushed into suspending democratic rights because of such advisors as Sanjay.

There is one basic problem with both these views. Neither is accurate. We all accept that the internal security argument is rubbish but I am as sceptical of the naughty-Sanjay-made-poor-Indira-do-it position. There were times when Rajiv Gandhi also faced threats to his position (when Chandra Swami was bribing President Zail Singh to sack him for instance). He was in a much stronger position -- both in Parliament and in terms of his national popularity - when these crises occurred. It never seemed to have occurred to him to have imposed an internal emergency. Similarly, many people advised P V Narasimha Rao to impose an emergency in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid -- when his own position seemed shaky. Neither Rajiv nor Rao took the Indira Gandhi route.

In many ways, Indira Gandhi was a stronger individual than either Rajiv or Rao. I cannot believe that Sanjay made her do something that went against her grain. I suspect the reality is that in the aftermath of the Allahabad judgment, she realised that she was on her way out and when Sanjay offered her one possible escape route, she grabbed it with both hands, tossing democratic considerations aside because her own survival was at stake.

For the Congress to defend the Emergency would be to defend the decision and the reign of terror that followed. Equally I don't think much is served by pointing fingers at those who supported the Emergency -- whether it is Rangarajan Kumarmangalam, Maneka Gandhi or V P Singh. Some people put loyalty to Indira Gandhi ahead of common sense, and many recognised that all alternatives were too horrible to contemplate. Chandra Shekhar was one of Indira Gandhi's greatest supporters. He fell out with her and found himself in jail. Nani Palkhivala was her lawyer in the Supreme Court in the electoral malpractice case. When the Emergency was declared, he returned her brief. The Tatas were then asked to sack him.

All of us -- especially the Congress -- need to accept that the Emergency marked a low point in the history of Indian democracy. Many argue about why Indira Gandhi did it -- was it her or was it Sanjay? -- but even the Congress must accept that if she did perceive an internal threat, she was mistaken. Nor did any such threat perception justify the goondagiri that went on the name of internal security.

I look forward to a day when a Congress spokesman can say something like this: Yes, the Emergency was a mistake. There were excesses and the people punished Indira Gandhi by driving her out of office. She apologised for those excesses and the people of India seemed to forgive her by returning her to power by a landslide in 1980. However, she learnt from her mistake and so have we. Not only does the Congress no longer defend the Emergency, we also pledge never to do anything like it again.

I doubt if such a formulation would be unacceptable to most intelligent members of the Congress leadership, including Indira Gandhi's daughter-in-law. It is what most of them believe in private anyway. So why not come out and say it? Why allow the Opposition to keep threatening you with the ghost of the Emergency? Why force spokesmen to tie themselves into knots defending the indefensible? And why insult the intelligence of the Indian people by pretending that the Emergency was not an affront to the democratic traditions of our country? For a return to dynasty to make any sense, the Congress must draw inspiration from Jawaharlal Nehru's achievements, not from Indira Gandhi's mistakes.

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