Under the shadow of a growing anti-corruption movement India quietly marked the 36th anniversary of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency proclamation during the weekend.
It was an anti-corruption movement launched by students in Gujarat and Bihar, both under Congress rule at the time, that prompted veteran freedom-fighter Jayaprakash Narayan — JP to the adoring public — to return to the political arena after a long absence with a call for ‘total revolution.’
Diverse political and social forces rallied behind him. A court verdict in an election case rendered Mrs Gandhi’s continuance as prime minister untenable. Seizing the opportunity provided by JP’s call to the armed forces to ignore unlawful orders, she declared a state of emergency and clamped down on democratic freedoms.
Dark days followed as the prime minister and her son, Sanjay Gandhi, who set himself up as an extra-constitutional authority, sought to create a regimented society with the help of a censored press. The saintly Vinoba Bhave hailed the ushering in of an era of discipline. The Supreme Court ruled that the citizen had no remedy if the state deprived him of life and liberty while fundamental rights remained suspended.
The Emergency experience taught the nation the value of freedoms. When Mrs Gandhi called an election to legitimise the regime, the people threw it out lock, stock and barrel. Displaying uncanny democratic sensibility, illiterate voters of the backward states rejected the entire Congress leadership, including Mrs Gandhi and her son.
Since the Emergency, the Judiciary has shown extra zeal in upholding its independence. If anything, it has gone overboard in the process, and appropriated for itself the last word in appointment of judges of the superior courts.
The media learnt its lesson, too. With the help of public opinion, it defeated attempts by the Centre and some states to enact new laws to curb press freedom. Stung by the experience, the Centre has refrained from bringing forward legislation to regulate the electronic media, which remains outside the ambit of enactments applicable to the press.
The Indian constitution still provides for Emergency rule. But amendments made by the short-lived Janata government, which functioned under JP’s patronage, have rendered its invocation on political considerations difficult.
Just as absence of war does not mean peace, absence of Emergency does not mean freedom. Arbitrary use of state power against those challenging its authority continues to be the order of the day.
The political landscape has changed vastly since the Emergency. Parties of different hues now share power at the Centre and in the states. Sadly, no party has distinguished itself as a reliable upholder of democratic virtues.
Several cases of killings by security personnel in fake encounters have come to light in recent years. In the border regions the armed forces are able to operate with impunity under laws of the colonial era which have been re-enacted to deal with the challenges to the state.
Across the country brute force is being used to suppress the poor who, more often than not, peacefully resist the takeover of their homes and lands in the name of economic development. Their democratic rights do not extend beyond the opportunity to cast votes when elections are called.
While the corruption scandals which have surfaced in the recent past provide an element of déjà vu, the current scenario is quite different from that of the 1970s. Although the focus of the anti-corruption movement is on the Congress, which leads the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre, no party in power at any level is today free from the taint of graft.
Besides, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is no Indira Gandhi, and Anna Hazare, who brought the corruption issue to the fore through an indefinite fast, is no Jayaprakash Narayan. Unlike the JP movement which set a couple of states on fire, the Hazare movement is largely confined to middle-class metropolitan youth.
The absence of dominant personalities like Indira Gandhi and Jayaprakash Narayan helps to put the problem in the proper perspective. The real issue is not individual corruption but the inability of the system to tackle the menace of graft, fuelled by the parties’ need for money to fight elections.
There is no getting away from the imperative of an institutional mechanism to deal with corruption at the higher levels of the administration. To adapt what Deng Ziaoping said in another context, black or white, the cat must catch mice.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, June 27, 2011.