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7 February 2019, Gateway House

The problems of populism

This vivid portrait of socialist India, by giving primacy to the political background that determined Indira Gandhi’s responses, is different from the yearly ritualistic denunciations of her and the Emergency. It also has a story-teller’s flair, making it accessible to readers born well after 1975

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This elegantly written, supple narrative of India’s tryst with democracy during the troubled late 1960s and early 1970s, which ended in the traumatic Emergency imposed by then prime minister Indira Gandhi in June 1975, and lifted in January 1977, and the defeat of the Congress and Indira Gandhi in the elections that followed, places the Emergency in context: the troubled years before it and the dance of tyranny during the 19 months it lasted. It is a memory-refresher for the older generation which focuses exclusively on the Emergency itself, often overlooking the political turbulence that preceded it.

Gyan Prakash does the job with admirable flair, marshalling evidence from personal files of Indira Gandhi’s key confidante of the pre-Emergency period, P.N. Haksar, to the films of Shyam Benegal, Ankur (1973) and Nishant (1975), to the story of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi and that of its student leaders, Prabir Purkayastha and D.P.Tripathi. He also looks at the work of Sanjay Gandhi and his Maruti project prior to his jumping into politics when his mother faces acute opposition in the wake of the 12 June 1975 Allahabad High Court judgment, quashing her 1971 election from Rae Bareli.

Prakash manages to tell the tale with the charm of a raconteur, and this should make it easy for generations of readers born long after 1975 to get a vivid, sepia-tinted picture of socialist India as well as the nationwide public unrest of those years.

He also draws attention to the fact that the troubled times of those years were not confined to India, but global in nature— from the May 1968 protests in France which saw the exit of France’s Second World War hero Charles De Gaulle and the anti-Vietnam protests in the United States to the Indira-like populism of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in Pakistan and Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in Bangladesh. In this sense, the book should be on the reading list of young Indians in the age group between 18 and 35.

Prakash’s historical narrative provides Indira Gandhi’s perspective and her politics. From being a mere ogress of the Emergency she emerges as a leader of an old party, dealing with the challenges of a developing country, and responding to the situation tentatively, be it her leftist turn in 1969 when she nationalised banks and ended the privy purses of the princes, her populist triumph in the 1971 election and her response to the rising tide of rebellion through the imposition of Emergency. Prakash is in no way offering an alibi for Indira Gandhi’s politics. But he foregrounds the political background of the times that determined her responses. This is very different from the ritualistic denunciations of Indira Gandhi and the Emergency every June 25, the day she declared it in 1975.

Prakash does something more as well. He goes back to the inherent contradictions in the political situation: a Constitution is in place, yet the social and political scenario is discordant. He quotes Ambedkar’s lucid observation in the Constituent Assembly: “On the 26th of January 1950 we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality…How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?”

In many ways, Prakash’s historical, political narrative turns on this discrepancy between political equality on the one hand, and social and economic inequality on the other. He does not overlook the contradiction, where the Constitution provides for the use of state power to end social discrimination in Indian society which translates into caste discrimination. Prakash states rather unflinchingly the basic contradiction in the Indian constitutional system that was being ushered in. He writes, “The state would also work to counter the danger posed by the “antinational” caste system through lawful and peaceful transformation.”

He enters troubled waters when he tries to connect neoliberalism with the political and social crisis because he argues, “With competition privileged as the dominant value in all domains of life by neoliberalism, the tide of old racist sentiments, ethnic solidarity, and hatred for immigrants and minorities has swept politics around the globe.” He connects this with the authoritarian populism of Donald Trump in the United States and that of Narendra Modi in India. He also refers to the populism from below that erupted against Indira Gandhi in 1975 led by Jayaprakash Narayan, and against the Manmohan Singh government in 2011 led by Anna Hazare. At the root of populist protests of JP and Anna Hazare is the fault-line of representative democracy when constitutionally mandated institutions become distorted and corrupt. The issue of populism, from below and from above, remains the unresolved question and it is not Prakash’s fault that he fails to address it adequately in this book. But we should be indebted to him that he raised it in the first place. He has widened and deepened the debate about democracy in India.

Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point by Gyan Prakash (Penguin Books Ltd.)

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr is a freelance journalist. He also serves as political editor of Parliamentarian, a monthly political magazine.

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