Dr. J. K. Bajaj

[Review of P. N. Dhar, Indira Gandhi, the ‘Emergency’ and Indian Democracy, Oxford, New Delhi 2000]

Srimati Indira Gandhi presided over the Indian State from 1966-1977. This was a crucial decade for India. The first twenty years following Independence were a period of recuperation. Much effort had to be spent on restoring to some state of health and vigour the physical and social environment that had been devastated by long centuries of foreign rule. Indira Gandhi arrived on the scene when the nation was in a position to make a concerted drive towards greater prosperity and power. Other countries of the world that achieved Independence along with us began to make substantial strides around this time; the foundations of the great prosperity and power that we see in China and the Southeast Asian nations today were in fact laid during the sixties and seventies.

India under Indira Gandhi did take some major, though tentative, steps. In the economic field, the productivity and market availability of food-grains was sought to be improved through the so-called “green revolution”, and through nationalisation of banking, an effort was made to mobilise large-scale funds for state-sponsored industrial growth. In the political field, the creation of Bangladesh with Indian military assistance established India as a power to reckon with, at least in the South Asian region. The testing of a nuclear device at Pokharan in May 1974 further underlined the Indian surge towards power; and the merger of Sikkim in September the same year proved to the world the Indian willingness to assert herself in order to protect her vital strategic interests.

All these initiatives, however, did not prove entirely effective. The Indian “green revolution”, unlike similar efforts of China and several Southeast Asian countries, turned out to be rather weak. Thus, in the twenty years between 1961 to 1981 during which “green revolution” technologies were introduced in several countries of Asia, production of food-grains in India grew by one and a half time, while in both China and Indonesia increased their production of food-grains by two and a half. In India, total food-grains production rose from around 100 million tons in 1961 to 160 million tons in 1981; it went up from 118 to 292 million tons in China and from 14 to 37 million tons in Indonesia during the same period. Thus, while both China and Indonesia, and many other countries of south-east Asia, experienced a near doubling of per capita availability of food-grains, the Indian green-revolution helped us merely to keep pace with the increasing population; there was hardly any improvement in food available for an average Indian.

Growth in industrial production also remained similarly weak. Notwithstanding the great mobilisation of funds by the State through bank nationalisation, overall growth remained low, not only in comparison with others, but also in absolute terms. The rate of growth of industrial investment, especially in basic and capital goods sectors, actually declined and so did the rate of growth of national income. This rendered the economy too weak to withstand the shock of increase in oil-prices in 1973.

The strategic initiatives of the period also began to come unstuck by this time. Military gains of the Bangladesh war were partly frittered away during the talks that followed the Indian victory. Whatever little influence India had gained over Pakistan began to dissolve when the Islamic world acquired a new vigour with the oil money and Pakistan found it convenient to align with them. Strategic advantage gained by the 1974 nuclear test did not last long; India did not carry out any further tests, and the status of India as a nuclear-capable country remained ambiguous. It took India another 25 years to gather the courage to lift the ambiguity. By then there was little strategic advantage to be gained from a demonstration of nuclear capabilities. Because, in those 25 years, China had moved miles ahead in nuclear technology, and even Pakistan had acquired or borrowed the necessary tricks.

With the various initiatives thus yielding little results, and the economy getting afflicted by severe shortages and high inflation, especially because of the rise in oil prices, mood in the country began to sour. Labour unions and students in different parts of the country became restive. When various protesting elements and almost all opposition parties came together under the charismatic leadership of Jayaprakash Narayan, the political situation came to the brink. And thus what could have been the golden period of Independent India, turned into a decade of lost opportunities.

The failures of that crucial period are not yet behind us. It is true that those who were in the opposition then have become the rulers now. The leader of the nation-wide railway strike of 1974 that crippled the already stricken economy and polity is the defence minister of India today; and the leader of the largest and most organised group of the political opposition is the Prime Minister of India. But, the questions of those days are hardly settled. India is yet to achieve the courage and consensus to make a concerted drive towards national prosperity and power; and disruptive issues concerning the proper balance between professional and political institutions, and between the State and the people remain unresolved.

We need to study the experience of 1966-1977 carefully to resolve many of the issues of today. It is therefore welcome that Sri P. N. Dhar, who as head of the Prime Minister’s Secretariat from 1971-1977 was both a participant and a witness of the events of that tragic decade, has now published a detailed account of those days. Professor Dhar, being an experienced economist and a practised diplomat, who represented India first in the British Guyana and later in the United Nations, places the events of 1966-77 in the national economic and strategic context, largely along the lines we have summarised above. But, he also provides valuable insights into the personality of Srimati Indira Gandhi and her main antagonist of the period, Sri Jayaprakash Narayan; and the narration is enlivened with a wealth of anecdotal information.

Most importantly, however, Prof. Dhar offers, from the maturity of his experience and years, an analysis of the causes that led to the monumental failures of that decade. Two of the major causes he identifies are: One, the ambivalence of Indians towards power; and two, the prevalent lack of social discipline and respect for constitutionally established authority, which, according to him, derives at least partly from the concept and technique of satyagraha that Mahatma Gandhi popularised and made respectable.

Prof. Dhar raises the issue of Indian ambivalence about power with some vehemence and poignancy while narrating the Indian stance during the Simla negotiations: “Strange as this may sound, the Indian team did not seem very comfortable with the fact of having won the war. I have tried to understand the psychology behind this attitude without success. Perhaps it was Indira Gandhi’s view – namely that it would be unbecoming for us as victors to behave victoriously while hosting the summit – that infected our attitudes. Or perhaps our collective historical experience makes us feel more at home with setbacks.”(P.203)

The reference to the ‘collective historical experience’ of defeats is facetious, with little historical truth in it. But, the attitude of the Indian team involved in negotiating the Simla Agreement indeed calls for deep reflection. Prof. Dhar provides a detailed description of the negotiating process at Simla; this constitutes one of the more valuable parts of the book. Indian objective in the Simla negotiations was fairly simple. India wanted a final settlement of the Kashmir issue, and all that was expected of Pakistan was recognition of the cease-fire line as the international border. In return for such recognition, Pakistan was to get back all of the war-won territories and about a hundred thousand POW’s. The Indian negotiating team failed to achieve this simple objective. In the end, Pakistan got the territory and the POW’s, and all that the Indians obtained was a pious, and unwritten, commitment from the Pakistani premier, Z. A. Bhutto, that the line of control would be gradually endowed with the ‘characteristics of an international border’. (P.195)

This failure was a result of the discomfort of the Indian team with the military victory. B. N. Haksar, leader of the Indian team, was so worried about this that he, according to Prof. Dhar, frequently reminded his colleagues of the consequence of the Treaty of Versailles. The Pakistan negotiators played upon this discomfort of the Indian negotiators. In addition, they brought droves of non-official Pakistanis who worked systematically upon their pacifist and liberal friends in the Indian establishment.

Whether India has a historical ambivalence about projection of power is doubtful. But the pacifist and liberal sentiments of the present day Indian establishment and a certain naivete concerning strategic matters are there for all to see. This sentimentality and naivete can be grating to experienced strategic negotiators; that is what probably explains the disdain with which Aziz Ahmed, the chief negotiator from the Pakistani side in the Simla process, later referred to the Indian negotiating stance—the sneering disdain that Prof. Dhar so painfully recalls. (P.205)

These naïvely pacifist attitudes, especially in matters concerning Pakistan, continue to prevail till today. The recent journey of our Prime Minister to Lahore, and the Kargil episode, arose from similar attitudes. We should be thankful to Prof. Dhar for so forcefully drawing the attention of the nation to the inappropriateness of this strategic stance. If it leads to some reflection within the Indian establishment on its strategic thinking, Prof. Dhar’s memoirs would have served a national purpose.

The second major cause of the tragic events of 1966-1977 that Prof. Dhar locates in the lack of social discipline and respect for constitutionally established authority also deserves serious thought. Lack of discipline in the public life of India is obvious; outside observers are often stuck by the extent of it and wonder how any polity can continue to survive with so little discipline and almost complete disregard for ordinary day-to-day rules of public functioning. It is understandable that someone like Prof. Dhar, who as head of the Prime Minister’s Secretariat in a turbulent decade had to face the full brunt of this rampant indiscipline, should be deeply worried about it.

But, Prof. Dhar’s attempt to place the indiscipline of modern Indian public life at the door of Mahatma Gandhi is certainly out of place. Gandhiji’s satyagraha has little to do with any kind of indiscipline; it, on the other hand, represents the highest form of personal and public discipline. Satyagraha is a manifestation of the principle that when rules and regulations of public conduct, the dharma and discipline of public life, are violated, it becomes the duty of every citizen to exert for the re-establishment of dharma, for restoration of the discipline. And such exertion in favour of public order is to be carried out through self-denial and self-abnegation that require the greatest personal discipline.

The indiscipline of Indian public life that Prof. Dhar regrets has nothing to do with satyagraha. As he himself notices elsewhere in his book the beneficiaries of the politics of modern India are “mainly rich and middle farmers, medium and small industrialists, traders, the labour aristocracy, government employees, and business groups operating in sheltered markets or trading in scarce commodities. Even though they form a small proportion of the total population, …Politically they are aggressive and skilful, and therefore influential far beyond their numbers. They have successfully espoused programmes and policies which further their interests in ideologically attractive terms – such as social justice.” (P.379)

The indiscipline and aggression of Indian public life arises entirely from this small proportion of Indians. There can be some difference of opinion as to which of the groups enumerated is more aggressive or more undisciplined. But there is no doubt that the source of aggressive indiscipline lies in these groups, who have done well during the last perhaps 200 years of Indian subjugation, and even more so in the 50 years of Independence. The ideological underpinning of the conduct of these groups is to be found not only in the concept of social justice that Prof. Dhar mentions, but also in the ideologically equally attractive concepts of protection of trade union rights, gender justice, civil liberties, and more recently, human rights. These concepts have originated in the modern west. Analysis and action along these lines are often promoted by western intellectual and material assistance. These have nothing to do with the preservation and protection of dharma, which is the essence of satyagraha.

It is unfortunate that modern Indian elite often tends to lay the blame for its own indiscipline and failures upon Mahatma Gandhi. Prof. Dhar manages to condemn Gandhism by quoting Jayaprakash Naryan and thus kill two birds with one stone. Referring to the JP movement, he says: “Perhaps the most accurate assessment of JP’s total revolution can be made in his own words, the words that he once used about Gandhism. He called it ‘a compound of timid economic analysis, good intentions and ineffective moralising.’ He called this a ‘dangerous doctrine’ because ‘it hushes up the real issues and sets out to remove the real evils of society by pious wishes.’” (P.252).

Perhaps the Gandhians and the institutions associated with Mahatma Gandhi’s name have made it easier for the modern elite to dismiss Gandhi thus, by adopting the varied protest movements launched in the name of modern western concepts like social justice, civil liberties, human rights, etc., as their own. They have thus trivialised the concept of satyagraha. And, it has therefore become possible to present a weapon of reassertion of public discipline and rejuvenation of society, as a disruptive concept. The publication of Prof. Dhar’s memoirs should probably lead the Gandhians and Gandhian institutions to reflect on their stance, so that Mahatma Gandhi’s name and thought is not exposed to such unnecessary ignominy.

Finally, it must be mentioned that Prof. Dhar is not writing merely the history of the decade of 1966-77. He skilfully weaves this history within the story of his personal life. And this enveloping story of the book is fascinating in itself. It describes how a young boy growing up in a remote Kashmiri town in the 1920’s was acculturated to modern values and sensibilities in a Christian school that took root and established itself in that remoteness by the sheer perseverance and commitment of a rather idiosyncratic Englishman. And, how that boy attaining to adulthood at the dawn of Independence kept growing along with the various modernistic institutions that independent India began establishing, rose to occupy the most crucial position in the Indian administration, and moved on to become a high officer in the United Nations. While the 1966-77 history of India that the book describes is a story of tragic failures and missed opportunities, this other story of the protagonist of the book is a story of uninterrupted growth from opportunity to opportunity, and spectacular success.

It seems that while India is stagnating, those of her people who are fortunate enough to have acquired the right education and contacts to obtain a foothold amongst the elite keep rising. Not all success stories are as spectacular as that of Prof. Dhar, but it seems in general true that while India fails, the Indian elite keeps succeeding. Could that be one of the causes of the failure of the Indian efforts at nation building!

September, 2000

Centre for Policy Studies
27 Rajasekharan Street
Mylapore, Chennai – 600 004