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Restoring India’s Political Process

ISSUE:  Winter 1977

The essence of the action taken on June 26, 1975, and in the weeks and months that followed it, was to suspend the political process in India. There may ‘have been some rationale in doing this at that time, both in dealing with the immediate and exceptional situation created by the Allahabad judgment, which ruled against Prime Minister Indira Ghandi in a case involving alleged election law infractions during her 1971 campaign for Parliament, and in meeting the more long-term threat posed by the opposition parties and the “JP movement” led by the popular and prominent Jayaprakash Narayan. Indeed, since 1974, the political process—particularly the manner in which dissent, discontent, and disenchantment were expressed—had begun to operate more outside than inside the basic framework of the polity, and it was felt by some in positions of power that the only way of dealing with such a political system was simply to suspend it. The assumption was that the system (or what remained of it) could then be more manageable. The Emergency, in other words, was seen to be an efficient instrument of crisis management—a drastic step no doubt, but one that was necessary to put an end to the serious strains to which the system was being put.

It now appears that this assumption was unwarranted and based on too simplistic an approach to the management of a highly complex, diverse, and farflung society facing a large variety of problems, none of which was amenable to an easy solution. Suspension of a political system assumes that the government of the country can be detached from the politics of the country and carried on through some simple instruments of control and coercion. In effect, however, such suspension makes the task of management much more difficult. When politics is suspended, the exercise of power and authority becomes arbitrary and unpredictable and soon gets out of hand. This has been the case throughout the period of the Emergency.

The spate of jail-breaking events; the studied sullenness of the public in mass meetings despite all the official effort to pack them with people and resounding slogans; the growing unease within the ranks of the Congress Party; the sense of outrage in some sections of the services at the arbitrary and arrogant behavior of some of the new bearers of power; the backlash on the much-publicized family planning program (even among sections of the lower-middle and self-employed classes that had earlier supported the Prime Minister); the refusal of powerful elements within the Congress in some of the states, such as West Bengal and Kerala, to be cowed down; the known, though unspoken, antipathy and deep concern even among the Prime Minister’s senior colleagues and a large number of Congress M.P.’s—all these suggest that the Emergency has not only not paid dividends but has proved counterproductive.

Evidence from a number of areas and social and political segments suggests a rising threshold of despair, anger, and resentment. If the rulers of the country are able to reflect on the meaning of all this, the only conclusion they can reach will be that the Emergency, whatever its earlier rationale and gains, has now become a liability and a way has to be found out of it.

Such a conclusion may be difficult to admit by those who have, over a long period, defended the Emergency on so many grounds. But it is a conclusion that is based on sound reasoning—not just on immediate evidence of the counter-productive character of the Emergency, but on two rather basic premises. First, that the political system is the ordering mechanism of civil society which makes it both manageable and goal-oriented. Any suspension of this over a long period of time removes the very mechanism by which orderly growth is possible and through which conflicts of interest and opinion which are inherent in civil society can be steered and regulated. The absence of such a mechanism over a long period of time can only produce sudden and unforeseen consequences. Second, that in a complex and plural society, the only way to make the political system operate as an ordering mechanism is to keep it open, so that it operates at many levels and involves a wide variety of actors. The only rationale for an action like the proclamation of the Emergency in such a society is to think of it as a temporary measure to deal with an exceptional event or a major threat to survival. Once such a condition disappears, the political system must be allowed to come back into its own—in its fullness.


I have argued elsewhere that by June 1975 the opposition movement had virtually collapsed, and there was no serious threat to the regime; that, instead, there were signs of normalization with Jayaprakash Narayan’s acceptance of the Prime Minister’s challenge of trying out the strength of his movement at the polls and with Mrs. Gandhi’s agreeing to hold the election in Gujarat following Morarji Desai’s fast, and that the only threat that provided the raison d’etre for the drastic step of June 26, 1975 was posed by the unfortunate judgment of the Allahabad High Court in the Prime Minister’s case and the partial stay order of the Supreme Court, Even this could have been handled through simple amendments of the Constitution, which indeed were the basis on which the Supreme Court finally acquitted Mrs. Gandhi of all charges against her.

The Emergency by itself was no answer to the crisis that had been growing during the decade of centralization and non-performance preceding it, and at best it had to be used as a temporary transition to a new era of both economic and political performance. Instead, in the year and a half since the Emergency, it seems to have become an end in itself, conceived by some as relief from the need to prove their worth in elections and other forms of competitive politics and used by some others as means of quick (if unbecoming) political ascendancy at the expense of both the legitimate bearers of power and the interests of the people at large.

Meanwhile, the suspension of the system itself has produced unforeseen strains and dangers, thanks to the arbitrary use of coercion and intimidation either by inexperienced and arrogant or unscrupulous and corrupt people who got the chance of their life under the new regime and are today bent upon its continuation.

There are, of course, a large number of people who think that the Emergency has produced a lot of good—that it has initiated a number of socio-economic changes; that it has, by putting an end to agitational politics in various spheres, brought peace in the running of government, industries, and the universities; that it has, through stern action against hoarders, smugglers, and black marketeers, brought prices under control, greatly improved the availability of food and other essential commodities, given a boost to exports, and dramatically improved the foreign exchange situation; that it has allowed the government to take long overdue actions in important areas such as family planning and slum clearance.

These claims have to be discounted by reference to four counterarguments: (a) many of them have nothing to do with the Emergency and are a result of independent and fortuitous factors, (b) for none of the steps taken was there a need for Emergency powers, (c) a large number of the contemplated changes are still on paper and more rhetorical than real, and (d) many of the steps taken have given rise to repression and intimidation, often of vulnerable sections of the people (e.g.,actions relating to compulsory sterilization and forced eviction of the poor from the cities), which in turn have produced backlash and violence, forcing the government to retrace its steps and discrediting entire programs so that they cannot operate even at their earlier level.


All this is apart from the main point that the country has had to pay too heavy a price for rather limited gains, namely, complete loss of personal freedoms, an atmosphere of fear and insecurity, ruthless use of police and para-military forces and of the Maintenance of Internal Security Act and Defence of India Rules for the suppression of political opponents, and the muzzling of not only the press but all forms of political expression and normal channels of articulation, including within the ruling party itself. And with all this, the actual gains are rather marginal and mostly temporary, the chief beneficiaries of which have once again been the richer sections of society, who have become the principal supporters of the Emergency, and the middle and lower levels of officialdom and the police who, now that there is little danger of exposure, have used all kinds of methods to extort a price for bestowing favors or withholding disfavors.

With a slackening of the so-called discipline and the ascendancy of a new economic philosophy, this particular alliance of the richer classes and the purveyors of the new instruments of power and coercion became all too evident and posed a challenge not just to liberal values but to the very nature and direction of the Indian nation.

Discounting for all these factors, however, the Emergency achieved one thing in a rather striking manner which must be taken full note of in thinking about the future: it brought into sharp relief and exposed the basic weakness of the pre-Emergency state of affairs. The suspension of the political process under the Emergency is certainly to be lamented, both on moral grounds and on the ground argued earlier in this article—that it has removed the very mechanism by which orderly growth is possible and has produced sudden and unforeseen strains in the operation of the system.

But the suspension of the political process also brought some relief, for with it was suspended the whole atmosphere of chaos and confrontation, of gheraos and bandhs (strikes and shutdowns) that used to take place day in and day out without rhyme or reason, of the senseless dramatics and disorder in the conduct of parliamentarians who had lost all sense of decency and dignity of the House and behaved like frustrated adolescents, of highly paid engineers holding whole regions to ransom by refusing to operate power plants, of students being used to coerce and intimidate legislators causing them to resign their seats in the state assemblies, and of politicians of all parties—not excluding elements within the ruling party— encouraging all this behavior in a mad scramble for popularity and power. A large part of the political system before the Emergency had become just this, and its suspension has not been regretted by many.

Any return to normalcy must take full cognizance of this. There are two points involved here. First, the bandh-gherao culture that had come to dominate the political process and had become the principal instrument of political bargaining must be ended. The Indian political system, given its great diversity and the country’s large distances and hence the possibility of the government ignoring interests that are not highly organized and vocal, had been all along somewhat permissive of what is known as “extra-parliamentary” activities. But they had to be used sparingly and only under compelling circumstances. They cannot be allowed to become the dominant medium of political pressure. If, when Mrs. Gandhi says that the situation that prevailed before the Emergency was not “normal” and that democracy had somehow gone off the rails, she has this in mind, then she is right and should be permitted to bring this up in whatever negotiations take place between her and leaders of opposition parties and other groups.

Second, however, it is also necessary to go deeper into this issue. It is necessary to look into the reasons for the growth in the last few years of the bandh-gherao culture and to try to remove them. It has often been argued that this is a legacy from the pre-Independence period when we resorted to fasts and other forms of resistance to foreign rule. There may be something to this, but it is clearly not the main reason. After all, during the fifties and early sixties—a period that was closer to the Independence movement than the one that followed it—while protests and fasts and even gheraos and bandhs did take place, they were not the dominant channels of political articulation.

What seems to have happened in the last several years is that the functioning of these systems, through a diffuse and pluralist structure of participation in which almost the entire political spectrum was involved, has given way to a highly centralized apparatus of power in which the parties (including the Congress Party) and parliamentary bodies have come to play a progressively diminishing role, in which state and local levels have lost their autonomy, and in which voluntary bodies and interest organizations have gradually been shunted out from the deliberative and decision-making processes.

With this, power got concentrated in the bureaucratic apparatus and in a few political bosses who in turn gradually lost touch with the people and became capricious and insensitive. The result was that it was only by resorting to some dramatic action, only by raising the pitch of one’s voice and acquiring a nuisance value, that a given individual or group could get a hearing. Hence the growing incidence of agitational behavior in all spheres.

Incidentally, the accent on agitational methods on the part of opposition parties and aggrieved groups also further contributed to the trend toward centralization as it focused attention on urban metropolitan areas and diverted both resources and political energy from the rural areas where the main effort should have been. Thus the opposition groups and agitational movements must take part of the blame for the centralization of the political process.

Ultimately, a new language of politics developed, and all but the most deprived groups began to employ it. Nor was it limited to opposing groups; it was also the case with communications within the Congress Party. For example, the last bandh before the Emergency took place in West Bengal, and it was called by Congressmen who happened to be in power in that state. The call for the bandh was given by the leader of an important faction in the Congress who also was a Minister in the government, ostensibly for increasing contact between the government and the people but in reality with a view to increasing his bargaining power within the party and the government.

The spread of the language of agitation and the bandh-gherao culture to non-political sectors, too, reflected a certain sense of remoteness from power, of a sense of impotency and anomie in the face of a highly centralized and impersonal system, of a feeling that there was no justice in the normal course of things and that the new language was the only available means of self-expression.

As one looks into the future, the picture becomes even more frightening. After all, under the Emergency, the process of centralization has gone even further, and the channels for ventilating grievances and expressing discontent that were once allowed have also been blocked. Even a letter to the editor on a political issue cannot be published, let alone other means of ventilating grievances. This is likely to give rise to a scenario in which the only means of political expression will be by resort to terrorist activities. There are indications that this has already begun, and there is every likelihood that terrorism will gain in importance, and there will be an increasing spurt of violence if normal channels of communication are not restored.

While it is necessary for all sections of political opinion to agree and make serious efforts to put an end to the culture of confrontation in the political process, it is also necessary that the leadership should reverse the trend towards centralization, permit exercise of power to various groups at different levels, reinstitutionalize channels for expression and redress of grievances, and generally return to the pluralist political model which operated so successfully at one time and which provides the only viable framework for India.


Our argument has been two-fold. First, that the Emergency was no answer to the crisis that had overtaken the system, and a year and a half has shown that it has gone on too long and has proved counter-productive. Second, that it is not enough merely to lift the Emergency. The conditions that led to it must be confronted; the grave distortions that infested the political process must be ended together with the culture of chaos and confrontation that had resulted therefrom, threatening to engulf the entire nation. The paramount need today is to produce a climate of trust and confidence all over India so that the rules of the game are restored and the political system can come back into its own.

Here it is necessary to grasp the logic of the Indian model of politics that emerged in the first 20 years of independence out of the twin facts of a highly diverse social structure and its territorial spread, on the one hand, and the need to provide a framework of consensus and integration to carry out the major tasks facing the country, on the other. The model had two interrelated aspects: a structure of government which allowed for an authoritative exercise of power and implementation of key decisions across the country, and a wide and diffuse sharing of power at various levels which legitimized such a structure of authority and made it responsive to the diverse needs and demands of the population.

It was a framework of integration based on a structure of participation—within the Congress Party, through a wide continuum of shades of interest and opinion and periodic turnover of elites in it, between such a continuum within the Congress and a large spectrum of opposition groups and other organized groups at regional and local levels outside the Congress, between centralized organs of planning and decision-making and a dispersed and voluntaristic structure of socio-economic and regional groups, and between a pyramidal framework of officialdom and a horizontal framework of political middlemen.

The “system” that emerged out of such a structure of participation was one in which, while the Congress Party retained a major share of power and authority, it continued to enjoy widespread acceptance and legitimacy thanks largely to its remarkable capacity to share power within its own wide-open and pluralist framework and with other parties and groups at regional and local levels, as well as in parliamentary bodies, various committees, and other organs of decision-making where opposition parties and leaders were given not only due regard but often a position that was out of proportion to their numerical strength. The “power game” was thus played in a way that was seen to be fair despite its unevenness and inherent inequality.

This was, by any standard, a highly complex and sophisticated operation. But it worked and worked rather well for almost two decades, A good part of it was based on unwritten conventions and modus operandi.And central to its success was one key factor: the ability of the operators of the system to understand its logic and their willingness to play it out.

Over the last few years, this understanding seems to have been lacking on all sides of the political spectrum, with the result that the fine balance on which the system rested has been upset, and the game of power is being increasingly played without regard for its rules. If the end of the Emergency is also to mean an end of the crisis that gave rise to it, it is necessary for all sides to show the understanding and perception that are so essential to the efficient functioning of the system.

Thus it is necessary not just to end the culture of confrontation and restore a framework of consensus based on acceptance of the rules of the game, but also to play it in a manner that provides due scope for participation to various elements in the system. The two aspects are intimately inter-related.

In doing this, it is necessary to grasp that the key to both the framework of consensus and the structure of participation, through which such consensus is to be made meaningful, is the federal axis of the political system. The federal axis is to be viewed as not just a vertical chain of government but also a continuum of power in which different parties and factions and groups can participate, It is necessary to allow power to be enjoyed at the state and local levels by parties or coalitions of parties other than the Congress Party where they come to power through the normal process of electoral choice.

There is really no threat to the Congress Party at the national level for a long time to come; it will also continue to be in power in a majority of states. But if it does not get into power in one or more states, local bodies, cooperatives, and so forth, this should not be lamented but welcomed. It is precisely through such a sharing of power that various parties and groups can find a stake in the system and their frustration and extremism can be overcome. The tendency to snatch power from other parties even where they have a legitimate claim to it by toppling them by any means must be put to an end through a conscious exercise of restraint and moderation.

The “federal axis” does not stop at the level of the state; it involves decentralization at lower levels of the polity as well. Here again we have had a setback. The Indian political model had laid special stress on decentralization, both through the structure of the Congress organization and through institutions of local self-government. In the last few years, both these structures have lost their position, thanks in part to the overall trend towards centralization which has made the holders of power at local levels feel insecure and impelled to either take their cue from higher levels or simply give up functioning, but also in part due to direct encroachment on local party and government units by state politicians and bureaucrats.

It is necessary to revive these local bodies, devolve on them adequate functions, powers, and resources, and involve them in major tasks of economic reconstruction and nation building. A large part of the economic agenda before the country, from increased food production to the creation of employment opportunities to special programs for the weaker sections of society, has to be carried out in rural areas. Our earlier experience with community development has shown that this cannot be achieved through the administrative structure alone and will necessitate the involvement of the people and their representatives. Such a strategy of participation should be institutionalized by developing a multi-tier structure of political functioning. The necessary reforms in territorial, administrative, and representational systems for this purpose should also be carried out.

We have had many ups and downs and considerable experience on the interplay between democracy and development, and by now it is conclusively clear that federalism and democratic decentralization are crucial to reviving our pluralist form of government, which alone provides the basis for both national integration and economic performance. It is impossible to rule this vast and enormously diverse country from New Delhi. The sooner we realize this the better for everyone—including the wielders of power in New Delhi.

It is to these twin tasks of removing the climate of confrontation and restoring a framework of consensus through participation of diverse elements along the federal axis that the leadership ought to devote itself in the coming months, Crucial to both these tasks is the need to revive the political system from its present state of suspension and make it the vehicle of national regeneration. More than a year and a half of rule under the Emergency has shown that while it may have been able to suspend the bandh-gherao culture, take a few steps to curb unhealthy trends in the economy, and even register a few gains, there are limits to what can be achieved by fiat only. If these gains are to be continued and consummated in terms of lasting benefits and at the same time if sudden and unforeseen consequences are to be avoided, it is necessary to return to more open and predictable institutionalized channels.

Only thus can both the long chain of decision-makers and the people and their representatives at various levels be involved in the policy process. And only thus can enough pressures be built at local levels for the implementation of various schemes, for adequate feedback to take place, for conflicting interests to be resolved in an orderly manner, for the system to perform on a long-term and enduring basis.

Discussions with a variety of people along this whole continuum suggest that there has been far more talk than action, that vital decisions have just not been taken in the key ministries and at lower levels, that there is hardly any coordination between different parts of the same government, that there is a great deal of anxiety among administrators and politicians as to the scope and limits of one’s power, that there are deep divisions within the Congress Party in the states which are, however, not being resolved, and that at the level of the people the initial impact of a new kind of regime is wearing out and they are getting impatient at too much talk and too little action.

In the meanwhile, while everyone in the government and the party is too eager to express his loyalty and chant the same slogans for fear of being left out, the top leadership is led to believe that things are indeed happening and, with the exception of stray incidents, everything is under control. In point of fact, little of substance is happening and little can happen under the present set-up. And of the few things that have happened, there is more likelihood than not of unforeseen consequences taking place and creating new problems.

This is true even in apparently non-political spheres such as family planning and the conduct of foreign policy. In the former, it was perhaps felt that one way of legitimizing the Emergency was to show some dramatic results, and the one area where this could be done was population control. This understanding was quickly seen by some as a green light for using all kinds of measures to force the people, mostly the vulnerable sections among them, and to show results. Soon this got out of hand and created an atmosphere of shock and disbelief, producing severe backlash and, in the process, discrediting the family planning program as a whole.

As for foreign policy, without going into detail, it is clear that while the country has taken major initiatives to adopt an independent posture in foreign affairs, the fact that its domestic political process is virtually closed and its future uncertain has created all kinds of mental blocks both for its own policy-planners and for the major powers with whom they have to deal. This is quite apart from the fact that foreign powers, too, learn to operate differently in closed systems, often fish in troubled waters, and in trying to influence local political currents create new and unforeseen problems for the leadership. All this has started happening in India. Despite the widely held belief that closed systems are better able to manage their external relations and defense and strategic matters, history points to the opposite conclusion.

All in all, it is essential that the openness of the political process be restored and that this be done by not only lifting the Emergency—which is an essential prerequisite—and holding elections soon thereafter—which should, of course, naturally follow—but also simultaneously opening negotiations among the various parties and groups with a view to reviving the system. We have discussed this matter in some detail in this article. We have deliberately focused on the two essential aspects of it: an end to confrontation by restoring the rules of the game and revival of a framework of consensus by reestablishing channels of participation. There are many other issues that need early attention—reform in electoral financing, legislation or code of conduct on floor-crossing, etc.—but these and other matters can be gone into a little later.

We would argue the same about constitutional changes, which are needed, especially the ones that will expedite social justice. But the present is not the time for them. These are abnormal times and a degree of normalcy is needed before major reforms can be considered objectively, coolly, and dispassionately. The important thing just now is to heal the deep scars that have resulted over the last two or three years, bridge the wide chasm that has divided people, and gradually restore mutual trust and confidence. This is the key to the revival of the political process that was put in cold storage a year and a half ago.

The year 1975—76 was a year of depoliticalization— of substitution of political participation by certain other instruments of management and control. There are some people who find this congenial. But these are invariably people who are either politically naïve or mischievous. Theirs is a dangerous scenario: they would rather do away with the political system than participate in it; instead, they would rely solely on instruments of manipulation and coercion. Their plea is that “politics” is responsible for all our ills, and it is best to cut it out. But depoliticalization cannot be an answer to politics gone astray and having become purposeless. The only answer is to put politics back on sound tracks and to make it once more viable and vigorous. For, without an active political process, no civil society can endure for long.

This is not to inflate the importance of politics but simply to emphasize its role in ensuring the smooth conduct of human affairs under conditions of security and predictability. Politics has basically to be looked upon as only a necessary activity, not in itself an art or a science, in some ways a second order activity, but one that is a precondition of all first order activities, its end being the organization of human affairs which permits the pursuit of the arts and the sciences. It may even be considered an essentially negative good but one without which more positive goods are not attainable. If there were too much politics perhaps we would perish; but if there is no politics at all, we are bound to perish. It will not be enough merely to lift the Emergency. The political process in India must be restored in its fullness—and with freedom for all to participate in it.


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