June 28, 2015

A Creeping Authoritarianism

JUNE 25 marked the 40th anniversary of the internal emergency which lasted for 19 months. The imposition of emergency was an infamous and dark chapter in the history of post-independent India. Indira Gandhi, who had won a huge majority in the 1971 Lok Sabha election, was faced with rising popular discontent which erupted in the form of various mass movements such as the Nav Nirman movement in Gujarat and the JP movement. This period also saw the biggest working class struggle in the form of the railway strike in May 1974 involving 17 lakh workers. The Indira Gandhi government and the ruling Congress party sought to tackle the mass protests and growing opposition with repression. The “progressive façade” of the Indira government was already exposed with the semi-fascist terror unleashed in West Bengal against the CPI(M) and other Left forces. The CPI(M) was the first party to warn against the danger of one party authoritarian rule at its 9th Congress held in 1972. The immediate cause for the emergency was the challenge posed to the government by the growing opposition represented by the JP movement and the Allahabad High Court judgment disqualifying Indira Gandhi’s election to the Lok Sabha. Feeling encircled and cornered, Indira Gandhi decided to strike back by imposing an internal emergency. The declaration of emergency saw the arrest of thousands of leaders and activists of the opposition parties under preventive detention, suppression of civil liberties, press censorship and a blanket ban on all political activities critical of the government. Hundreds of CPI(M) leaders and cadres were also arrested under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act. While the immediate reason for this draconian step was the threat faced by Indira Gandhi to her continuance as the prime minister, it will be erroneous to see this as the sole reason. The emergency was the culmination of an authoritarian drive which manifested earlier. It stemmed from a crisis in the political system and the political economy and the challenges faced by the ruling party. There was growing political instability ushered in by the decline of one-party dominance which became marked after the 1967 general elections. Resort to authoritarianism became a necessary option for the ruling classes. All these contributed to the assault on bourgeois democracy. The emergency sought to resolve this deepening crisis and make a change over to a more authoritarian Constitutional order. The 42nd Constitutional amendment which was passed by parliament during the emergency, sought to alter the balance of power between the executive, the judiciary and the parliament. For instance, one of the provisions introduced in the Constitution was that the judiciary cannot review any amendment to the Constitution adopted by parliament. This whole exercise of introducing authoritarian features in the political system failed because the people rejected the emergency and refused to go along with this assault on democracy. The emergency saw not only abrogation of civil liberties but assaults on the people through compulsory sterilisation drive, widespread demolitions of the houses of the poor and other arbitrary bureaucratic decisions. Indira Gandhi had lifted the emergency and called for elections in March 1977 expecting to win the election to legitimise her authoritarian rule. But the people gave her and the Congress party a resounding defeat. On the occasion of the anniversary of the emergency, a question is being debated on whether an emergency like situation can recur again in India. This is a question which is being posed in the wrong way. The issue to be considered is whether authoritarianism can once again threaten the political system. Using emergency powers to usher in an authoritarian regime is not likely to happen again. But what is likely is that authoritarianism in other forms can threaten the democratic system. Just as the basic causes for the emergency four decades ago were a crisis of the political system, problems of stability and economic discontent, at present too, all the ingredients for the rise of authoritarianism have matured. The consequences of neo-liberalism, the rise of the Hindutva communal forces, the degeneration of the political parties and the corrosion of the institutions of the State have all combined to presage a creeping authoritarianism. It may be worthwhile to recall here that in the 10th Congress of the CPI(M) held in Jallandhar in April 1978, the Party warned that the danger of authoritarianism will remain as long as the domination of the big bourgeoisie and landlords over the economy and the polity remains, attempts will be made by one political combination or the other to install dictatorship to make its rule viable. Neo-liberalism has handed over large segments of not only production but basic services such as education and health to market forces and to big business. This has led to unprecedented levels of inequality and corruption which corrodes the basic rights of citizens and democracy itself. Neo-liberalism narrows and restricts democracy by placing the market above the people and their rights. Big capital has invaded the political system and all the bourgeois political parties have become subordinate to big money power. This is corroding the parliamentary system. The ruling party, BJP, is run and controlled by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. This has opened the way for the introduction of the agenda and personnel of the RSS into the institutions of the State. This provides an opportunity for an organisation with a semi-fascist ideology and goals which are inimical to the secular democratic principles proclaimed in the Constitution to work from within to undermine it. The Hindutva outfits, with State sponsorship, are on a rampage to impose their values on the religious minorities and transgressing their basic rights. Thus, authoritarianism is increasingly entering the social and cultural spheres. This mix of neo-liberal market fundamentalism and Hindutva is a dangerous recipe for authoritarianism. On the one hand, the government moves to weaken the trade unions by changes in the labour laws, on the other, it seeks to accomplish market-friendly laws by relying on ordinances and bypassing parliament, as illustrated by the land acquisition act changes. If the Indira regime conceived of a “committed bureaucracy”, today this instrument of the State stands further corroded by the invasion of neo-liberal market values which has spawned gigantic corruption and a willingness to undertake illegal and self-serving acts at the behest of a big-business-ruling politician- bureaucrat nexus. The judiciary which had been cowed down by the emergency and whose independent position was restored to a certain extent has also suffered erosion in their integrity and independence. The existence of draconian laws such as the UAPA, AFSPA and the sedition clauses in the IPC and the frequent resort to them have eroded the fundamental rights of citizens. We have periodically seen how the ruling class parties have sought to ensure stability of the political system by bringing changes. It was LK Advani, who has recently warned that emergency can recur again, who pushed for a presidential form of government during the time of the NDA government. A powerful executive presidency is what many sections of the ruling classes would like in India. It could inject a dose of authoritarianism into what it considers to be a weak and anaemic political order. Having got a majority in the Lok Sabha, the Modi government has shown increasing contempt for parliament. The spate of ordinances, the attempt to denigrate the Rajya Sabha and the centralisation of all powers in the hands of the prime minister are part of the ongoing process under neo-liberalism to restrict democracy and take away vital decision-making powers and policies out of the purview of the elected bodies. So what we are faced with is a creeping move towards an authoritarian order. What is required is a multi-pronged fight against neo-liberalism, Hindutva communalism and authoritarianism. They are all fundamentally linked together. Drawing the correct lessons from the emergency of four decades ago will help us in this current struggle. (June 23, 2015)