If I remember correctly, Lal Krishna Advani published his autobiography “My country, My Life” a few months before the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. At that time, Advaniji had already been anointed as the PM candidate of the NDA. I got hold of a copy as soon as I could and read it from cover to cover.
I had vaguely heard about the Emergency but I didn’t really know what it was. For obvious reasons, school history books, newspapers and magazines did not go into it. Come to think of it, notice how Indian textbooks teach history: with focus on the individual (read Nehru) rather than (supposed) founding principles of our democracy. Do you find words like “liberty”, “freedom of speech” etc anywhere in a school history book? No, of course not. Very different from the US where founding principles of the Republic are taught to all.
But I digressed. It was Advani’s autobiography that introduced me to the Emergency and how Indira Gandhi systematically demolished the basic pillars on which a free society stands: freedom of expression, habeas corpus, right to a fair trial, etc. Again, you will notice that these concepts and their importance are never actually explained in Indian schools. Rather we are made to memorize some of them as a list in Civics class, which is a “semi-subject” hurriedly squeezed in between History and Geography.
The most memorable point that Advaniji made in his book (according to me) is this: Look at the maturity of the Indian voter. They rejected the Emergency in the 1977 elections.
This may seem like an obvious thing to do now. But in 1977, India was a dirt poor country, with some of the lowest levels of literacy in the world. If you think about that era, many of the newly independent countries in Asia and Africa lost their democracies and became dictatorships at the time. Both internal and external factors were responsible for this. Internally, these newly independent countries were vulnerable to losing their democracies before democratic institutions had deepened sufficiently. On the external front, dictatorships suited both the reigning superpowers at the time. Both the USA and the USSR would rather deal with a fixed puppet regime in each country rather than deal with a merry go round of parties going in and out of power.
Perhaps this is what gave Indira Gandhi the courage to impose the Emergency, as she looked to join the ranks of all the other dictators in the so-called Third World (Aside: The term “Third World” actually has nothing to do with poverty. It is a Cold War term. The US and its allies are “First World”. The USSR and its allies were the Second. All the “battleground countries” where the two superpowers were vying for dominance were the “Third World”).
Except it didn’t work for Indira Gandhi. Indians showed that they were truly and remarkably different from the rest of the world. You can see the compromised intellectuals of that era, like Shashi Tharoor, explain why he didn’t think democracy mattered.
What does it mean when Shashi Tharoor says “Their bread is more important than my freedom“?
It means that he views freedom in itself as an elitist concept, something that an “intellectual” like him would perhaps care about. But not the masses, who are supposed to be all about bread and water. You know, the “cattle class”, the ones who are supposedly beneath discussing enlightened concepts like democracy. Those are supposed to be the playgrounds of diplomats, their children and the like…
But 1977 showed something special in the Indian spirit. It stunned the Tharoors of the world. With empty stomachs, the people of India voted for freedom. Freedom is not an elitist concept, Mr Tharoor. Just because your English is good doesn’t mean you actually understand the principles of the enlightenment. A common misconception though.
We Indians are different. You know history lasts a long time. At this moment, we may be a poor nation. Fortunes of nations go up and down. But inside we have the seeds of the civilization that once led the world. We proved that in 1977.
A similar thing could be happening right now, here in 2019.
People often worry that populism is the Achilles heel of democracy. What if somebody promises a direct bribe to the voter? Would he win an election?
Right here, right now, India is having the greatest experiment in the history of democracy. You could say democracy itself is on trial here.
The Congress has promised 72,000 Rupees every year to every poor person. Will the “poor” be swayed by it? Or will they realize that pie in the sky is always the most expensive kind?
When Congress first made this announcement, I will admit it. I thought it was all over for the BJP. Who would say no to free money? The smiles of the Gandhis on that day showed their enthusiasm. They thought they had the election locked up and in the bag.
But the weeks have rolled by and 72000 has all but disappeared from the narrative. It is stunning how little traction it got on the ground.
I guess it was a “mini Tharoor” moment for me. Did I assume that the vast majority of people are not smart enough to see through this boondoggle? Probably.
Of course, we cannot say anything for sure until the 23rd of May. But all signs point to the possibility that the vast majority of Indian voters have seen through this pyramid scheme, laughed at it and rejected it. In this, there would be a lesson for a lot of people, including me.
The biggest test of voter maturity in history is unfolding before our very eyes. Like 1977, it seems Indians are all set to show the whole world what we are made of. In this, we will set a precedent for free people everywhere. Dear humanity, you are welcome.