What’s so special about this anniversary of the Emergency?

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As the 2019 elections approach, a desperation has set in among parties to let no past political acrimony go unmilked.

What is most striking about the Prime Minister’s stentorian evocation of the dark memory that is the Emergency is its political timing. | Vivek Bendre

As a number denoting anniversaries, 43 is an awkward one, devoid of the roundness of even numbers. In the pantheon of milestones that call for celebration, it does not warrant being identified with any precious metal or stone — gold, silver, nor even a ruby. Therefore, the NDA government’s blitzkrieg around the 43 rd anniversary of the Emergency — press conferences, blogs, government advertisements and Prime Minister Modi’s blistering speech — raises the question of just what is so special about this particular iteration? After all, the 40 th anniversary, a nice round number, came and went three years ago with customary remembrances that were far less strident than this year’s.

 

Remembrance of things past

For the BJP and much of the anti-Congress grouping, the Emergency had perhaps been their finest hour. The Congress, as the party that fought for India’s independence, had dominated post-independence politics, the leaders of the freedom movement managing to dwarf the electoral warriors of more contemporary times. The Emergency, and the consequent resistance to this subversion of Indian democracy, led by Jayaprakash Narayan, was key in adding to the mainstream heft to these parties. They may not have been part of the Constitution debates, but they went to jail to save it from the Congress. All of this still doesn’t explain the eulogies to the struggle against the Emergency this year, though.

The plain answer to this question is the fact that we are now in the year 2018, less than a year away from the General Elections. An opposition, shaken from its torpor by the threat of political annihilation, is making attempts to put up a unified fight against the BJP. Sworn political rivals are ganging up, like in Uttar Pradesh with Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Parties that grew out of a fierce anti-Congress ideology and were NDA allies, such as Telegu Desam Party (TDP), have now vowed to take on the BJP.

For the BJP, therefore, this reiteration of just what the Indira Gandhi–led government had done in imposing the Emergency is an important reminder to these erstwhile anti-Congress parties about the recent past.

 

A party like the TDP, which had sprouted from a strong anti-Congress ideological base, was being reminded of the perils of ‘sleeping with the enemy’. The reminder of having been humiliated in the past by the Congress was meant for the Janata Party socialists too.

 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech in Parliament during the budget session this year was a pointer. On the eve of the TDP walking out of the NDA, its MPs were protesting both inside and outside the Parliament everyday. Prime Minister Modi then laid out a history lesson for TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu. Recalling the origins of the TDP, Prime Minister Modi said, “... when Rajiv Gandhi landed in Hyderabad, how did he behave with a Congress leader Mr. T. Anjaiah? He humiliated a big leader who did not belong to a privileged background.” The Prime Minister also recalled the “humiliation” of another proud son of Andhra Pradesh, former President Neelam Sanjiva Reddy. A party like the TDP, which had grown within a strong anti-Congress ideological base, was being reminded of the perils of ‘sleeping with the enemy’. The reminder of having been humiliated in the past by the Congress was meant for the Janata Party socialists too.

There is another subtext to these markers about the Emergency, and it is also to make a point on the Judiciary — more specifically, on its subversion by the then Congress government, which disregarded the seniority list to appoint a Chief Justice of its choice.

The Congress, during the last Parliament session, had tried to move an impeachment notice (rejected by chairperson of the Rajya Sabha, M. Venkaiah Naidu) against Chief Justice Dipak Misra, and expressed apprehensions that the seniority list would be overlooked by the government. By highlighting the fact that the judiciary had been tampered with under the then Congress government, the BJP is trying to build a continuum of intimidatory tactics. Law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said it out loud at a presser: “Why did they [the Congress] bring out an impeachment motion? They tried to send out a message to the judiciary.”

Memory and Metaphor

Will this delving into the past revive a memory of the Emergency-era Congress, especially among powerful regional satraps about to sit down with the party for what promises to be a series of tough negotiations on seat adjustments? Will the commemoration of an event linked to the strengthening of a united non-Congress opposition overcome the divisions that will ensue along the lines of Hindutva and secularism and — more importantly — by the BJP’s winner-takes-all politics?

After all, the BJP itself is invoking former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, albeit of 1971, and how she faced down a combined opposition to bolster itself in the run up to 2019. As American columnist Franklin Pierce Adams said: “Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory”. Evocation of the memory of the Emergency in all its gory details is, for the BJP, an attempt to reinforce just that.

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