Emergency was a move to shift towards U.S.-style democracy, Indira’s principal secretary told envoy

Updated - November 17, 2021 04:05 am IST

Published - April 12, 2013 03:09 am IST - CHENNAI:

Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency in 1975 as part of an attempt to move away from the Westminster-style of democracy and multiparty system towards a U.S.-style legislative system, her principal secretary P.N. Dhar told the American Ambassador William B. Saxbe.

A U.S. diplomatic cable ( >1975NEWDE14119_b ) sent on October 22, 1975, gives interesting insights into Mrs. Gandhi’s decision to impose Emergency rule, through the eyes of a top official. Many years later, Dhar would write a book on the period called Indira Gandhi, ‘the Emergency’ and Indian Democracy , in which he developed this theme, justifying the Emergency as a necessity that had arisen because the political culture that should accompany the Westminster-style model was missing.

Saxbe reported his meeting, which took place a few months after Emergency was imposed, to the State Department, saying Dhar said this was the “real reason” for the imposition of Emergency.

Dhar, an economist, was principal secretary to Indira Gandhi from 1973 to 1977. To Saxbe, he expressed frustration at the paralysis in governance because of Members of Parliament hijacking the legislature’s limited time. He spoke in favour of the committee system in the United States, where a Bill, before being debated in the House or Senate, would have to be approved by the appropriate House committee or sub-committee and Senate Committee or sub-committee.

Indian democracy, Dhar believed, had ceased to be a problem-solving one; the U.S. system was more suited to Indian conditions. As an example of the gap between the existing political system in India and the political culture, he pointed to the April 1975 hunger strike by Morarji Desai, in support of the massive protests by youth and activists in Gujarat organised under the Nav Nirman movement, demanding fresh elections in the State. The Assembly, which was elected in 1973, had to be dissolved and fresh elections held in June that year.

“…Dhar said that one man by threatening suicide (hunger strike) had been able to force the government to hold elections in Gujarat at the most inconvenient and inhospitable time. Politics had run wild in the parliament. During question hour the same query was put repeatedly to ministers who were so preoccupied with such political demands on them that they could not focus on governmental issues. Parliamentary sessions were more and more boisterous, with the result that business could not be conducted systematically. The courts had a system of writ petitions and stay orders which effectively blocked governmental action,” the cable reported.

According to the diplomatic communique, which is part of the Kissinger-era cables obtained by WikiLeaks and accessed by The Hindu , Dhar told the Ambassador that just as it took the China-India war to start India developing its frontier regions and the 1966-67 famine to cause the introduction of new strains of wheat, the verdict in the Raj Narain case against the election of Mrs. Gandhi, the immediate provocation for the Emergency, had caused “a fundamental examination of the effectiveness of government”.

The Indian official, who was an economic liberal himself, also articulated the rightward shift in economic policies during the Emergency, arguing against populist policies and the practice of paying bonuses to employees of loss-making companies and nationalising sick enterprises, which drained out funds. He faulted the judiciary too for passing stay orders on writ petitions that put the brakes on industry, and called for simplification of the judicial process.

Nevertheless, Dhar told Saxbe, Mrs Gandhi could not abandon democracy. In the cable he noted Dhar telling him that she had told Parliament “that in a country as large and diverse as India there must be public participation in government. The Emergency was temporary. This was not a point of equilibrium in the Indian system. There must be movement either forward or backward.”

Dhar pointed out that the Indian system, meaning the pre-Emergency system, would remain, “but there must be some trimming.” The judicial system had to be “simplified” and there had to be “a return to the discipline of the early 1950s in the parliament which may shift to a committee system similar to that used in the U.S.”

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