My contribution was to force Mrs Gandhi non-violently to find a way to legitimise the Emergency by winning an election’
During the Emergency, Subramanian Swamy was a Member of Parliament (MP) on the run with a warrant of arrest out against him. Like the Scarlet Pimpernel, Swamy showed up in disguise in Parliament, signed the attendance register – compulsory to remain an MP – and disappeared. He managed to escape to the US where he kept up a campaign against the Emergency. Although all these exciting things happened 40 years ago, there has been no let-down in his exuberance and passion to fashion the India of his dreams. In an email interview, Swamy, now vice-president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), talks of the reasons behind the Emergency and why it can never be imposed again.
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi
The imposition of internal Emergency disrupted Indian democracy for two-odd years. Why did it happen? Were there other reasons besides Indira Gandhi’s insecurities due to the Allahabad High Court judgment declaring her guilty of electoral malpractices?
The preparation for Emergency began with Mrs Gandhi’s ‘kitchen Cabinet’ led by [Rangarajan] Kumaramangalam, [Siddhartha Shankar] Ray and others in 1972, when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in Bangladesh was encouraged to proclaim an Emergency, and he did. It was really the brainchild of the Left-leaning ministers who thought India needed a ‘command’ system. The Allahabad High Court verdict only triggered it since it meant Mrs Gandhi’s personal loss of freedom, arising from her disqualification as an MP and hence PM. The Jayaprakash Narayan movement against corruption made things gloomy for Mrs Gandhi.
Tell us about your Emergency experience.
My main role was to reach the truth of the arbitrariness and ruthlessness of the Emergency and the terrible loss of freedom resulting from the arbitrary arrest powers of the police on the whims of Congress persons. By escaping abroad I was able to create an NRI-based movement in Western democracies such as the US, Canada and the UK. This made the state of Emergency an unresolved issue in the minds of foreign governments—that Indians have not accepted loss of democracy as permanent. Hence the UK, Germany and Australia in particular kept pressing Mrs Gandhi as to when she would lift the Emergency. My sudden return to India undetected despite a proclaimed offender status for evading my arrest warrant, and then the audacious entry in Parliament and making a point of order in the Rajya Sabha, and then disappearing to surface again in the US completely shattered Mrs Gandhi’s propaganda that the nation liked the authoritarian rule of the Emergency and that there was no resistance movement. Years later, Rajiv Gandhi told me that it was then Mrs Gandhi thought of going for an election. Thus, my contribution was to force Mrs Gandhi non-violently to think again and find a way to legitimise the Emergency by winning an election and then ruling on the basis of the Constitution amended beyond shape by the 42nd Amendment. That is, an election to end all elections. But the tactic failed.
The media ‘crawled when they were asked to bend’, the courts too came under pressure. What was the reason for this fragility? Was it due to an ideological divide or was the attempt of the ruling party to tar the opposition as right-wing conspirators trying to bring down the government accepted by the media and a section of the masses?
Media fragility comes from the easy life that compliance with the government affords. That is so even today. In the Emergency it also meant going to jail.
How has the Emergency of 1975-77 impacted Indian democracy?
It has impacted it in two ways—it was the poorer and less educated North which voted against the Emergency, even defeating Mrs Gandhi in her pocket borough. The less poor and more educated South voted for the Emergency! Thus, it disproved the notion that for democracy a nation must have as a minimum condition a high standard of living and well-educated masses. Second, it proved that even the illiterate can rise above their caste prejudices and vote as one to remove an oppressive government. India’s ancient traditions of debating and consensus formation were re-asserted. Democracy was not a British transplant in India but an ancient indigenous value. Emergency affirmed democracy as a form of social being that is at the core of our society.
Do you think our institutions are strong enough to prevent another Emergency?
Yes. Whoever tries it will come to a disastrous end.