IN RECENT DAYS there has been extensive commentary on the 43rd anniversary of the Emergency that was imposed in India in June 1975. Parallels—mostly faux—have been made with the present time, with some commentators going as far as to say that an ‘undeclared’ emergency is ‘on’ in India.
This is unfortunate, as none of the features marking that ugly phenomenon are visible. Individual freedoms, including a free press, are robust as ever; there is no targeting of political parties or workers; and no midnight knocks have been reported in recent memory. These and other cherished freedoms continue to be valued, both at the level of government and society.
Why do such allegations gain traction when there is little evidence of a suspension of democratic rights? Political scientists have debated this for a long time and there is a slate of theories explaining why. If one sets aside complex theories and looks at some features peculiar to India, the fear of an emergency, declared or undeclared, makes some sense. Two points are clear.
The first is that the India of today is a country with a huge youth bulge. This cohort was not born when the events of 1975 occurred and has no real experience of curbs on freedom. As such, it lacks a comparative yardstick, which is necessary to understand and compare political phenomena. All that they have is historical writing— which was never undertaken comprehensively—or current commentary that often peddles fear.
This lack of memory has another part. Since the late 1980s, governments in Delhi have been either fractious coalitions or dysfunctional ones. The General Election of 2014 was the first since 1984 that saw a single party take command of a majority of its own in Parliament. While nothing unusual in constitutional terms, the political authority of the top leadership this has meant is something unseen by a large number of Indians. It is not unnatural for people to fear something that they have not experienced before. This is as true of ghosts and goblins as it is of real political phenomena.
The roots of democracy in India are deep, no matter what naysayers have to say. It is true that the Emergency of the mid-1970s was for real. But viewed in the long-term context of Independent India’s history, it was an aberration in a particularly volatile decade.