Except during the Emergency in 1975-’77 till about the end of the 20th Century, though waning, Gandhi’s influence was strongly felt in Indian politics.
I was the President of Town Congress, Kurnool from 1985 to 1999. Only from 1989 to 1994 the Party was in power in the State and from 1991 to 96 at the Centre.
Apparently, we were out of power for a longer period. While in the opposition, we were staging Dharnas regularly, organising bandhs and conducting rasta roko; might be local, District, State or National.
The opposition comprising the Communists, Telugu Desam Party and the BJP used to perform the same acts when the Congress was the ruling party.
There used to be all out meaningful efforts by the administration to thwart the exercise. However, we were asked to behave with restraint, both while in the opposition as well as in power.
Kotla Vijayabhaskar Reddy, the grand old man of Kurnool politics, was the undisputed leader of the District for more than four decades. He was the Chief Minister of A.P. from October 1992 to December 1994. Whatever might be the instructions to the law enforcing agencies, one standing instruction to us, party workers was, “Don’t get a bad name for me.”
Opposition leaders were respected and heard with attention, both within and outside the Parliament and the Legislatures. When they rose to speak, the Prime or Chief Minister ‘listened’ to them. The press was really free and fair. All India Radio and later the Doordarshan, the only Govt managed media allotted relatively equitable time to the opposition in their news bulletins or ‘Today in Parliament/Legislature’ programmes.
The trend is completely changed now. Suppressing the opposition by hook or crook or by fair or foul means is the order of the day.
Civil servants from top to bottom did not shirk to receive or meet them. On the other hand, they felt it an honour. Even the elderly politicians were accorded due regard. Now they shirk raising their name. Many civil servants, including the bureaucrats, technocrats, doctors and engineers are stamped as belonging to a particular caste and a party. There might be few exceptions. In fact, civil service in a democracy is HMV (His Master’s Voice).
It is painful, a very mild term, to see the opposition being hunted and hounded. All sorts of pressures, individually and collectively, are built up against the peaceful demonstrations, even before they are actually exercised.
Those who raise their voice are gagged through all possible means. Nor the opposition is behaving with dignity and responsibly, nor does it follow democratic tenets.
The ruling party, however, is expected to behave more honourably to protect, preserve and promote democratic ideals.
So I am not raising the name of any political party or individuals or instances. There must be pulls and pressures in politics. But responsibility rests on the leaders to see that no damage is done either individually or organizationally to the party or polity.
Earlier leaders were careful in considering this aspect. Even those who used both the edges of a sword became cautious in later days. It was being used with care. They were seldom adamant. So they survived for long and are quoted even now, both from the ruling and the opposition. We regularly read their obituary columns.
Political analysts observe that the present leadership behaves and acts as it likes. So their continued existence for long is at stake. Of course, it happens in every democracy. However, in leading Democracies like the USA and the UK, which are two-party systems, the parties alternatively come to power. For example during the late 19th century, for more than three decades only three, William Ewart Gladstone, Liberal and Conservatives Benjamin Disraeli and Robert Gascoyne-Cecil were elected Prime Ministers alternatively.
After the Second World War, Labour replaced the Liberal Party. On the contrary, we have a strange system which was summed up by a hilarious question in a fictional Social Studies question paper of SSC.
The question asked was, ‘Who is the Education Minister of our State?’
A clever student answered: “I do not know who was there when this question paper was set!
“It is Mr. so & so,” wrote another student.
What could be the answer? There is an ambiguity in the question. The third student got confused about the time. So, he wrote, “I do not know who will be the incumbent when this answer paper is valued.”
It is a sad commentary on our democracy.
The most torturous period the opposition suffered was during the infamous Emergency, in some instances exceeding the legacies of the British Raj. Dissent is the essence of democracy. Dissent was suppressed with an iron hand. ‘Democracy is not the law of the majority but the protection of the minority’. From Mahatma Gandhi to Lincoln to Camus, prominent personalities over the ages have extolled the virtues of democracy while attempting to define it.
The Emergency of 1975 cared little for it. Now when an allegation of victimisation is thrown by the opposition, the stock answer is: “Remember the Emergency Days.”
The emergency was gone. General Elections to the Lok Sabha and various State Assemblies were held and the results were telling. Perpetrators of the excesses were humbled.
Respected elderly statesmen such as Jayaprakash Narayan, JB Kripalani and Morarji Desai had repeatedly said; “In a democratic setup, for a politician, electoral defeat is the greatest punishment.” They advised remarkable restraint by those in power.
At times we feel that the British were more democratic. If the extreme reaction were to be the order of the British administration, it is doubtful whether the National Movement could have been successful!
Though leaders were being taken to preventive custody, caution was being taken not to suffocate the leadership. For example, Gandhiji led the National Movement from 1915 onward. Starting with Non-cooperation in 1921 till Quit India in 1942, he gave a clarion call during each agitation. He would name a hierarchy of leadership, to take care of the movement in case he and the top leaders were to be arrested. Take the example of Dandi March. It was well planned and executed.
A Schedule from March 12 to April 6, 1930, was given wide publicity by the Indian National Congress and the Press. Gandhiji was not arrested even when he broke the ‘Salt Law’. Sarojini Naidu shouted and the gathering cheered ‘Hail the Deliverer.’ “With this salt, I am shaking the foundation of the empire,” said Gandhiji. He continued, “Now that a technical ceremonial breach of the law is committed, it is now open to anyone who would take the risk of prosecution under the salt law to manufacture salt whenever he wishes and wherever it is convenient… Thus the war against the salt law should be continued during the National Week up to the 13th instant.”
Civil disobedience was continued uninterrupted. ‘On the night of 4/5 May 1930, the police swooped with incredible precision and efficiency. They were in Gandhiji’s hut in Karadi in Surat District shining flashlights in his face before the alarm was sounded. The District magistrate read out the order signed by the Governor, Sir Frederick Sykes, “Whereas the govt views with alarm the activities of MK Gandhi they direct that he should be placed under Regulation 25 of 1827 and suffer Imprisonment during the pleasure of the Govt and be immediately removed to Yeravada Central Jail. The time was 00.45 a.m. by 10.45 AM”. He was lodged in Yeravada Central Jail.
As history proved, the sympathy had shifted in favour of the victim and the vanquished much to the disappointment of the rulers.
The ruling elite must always keep in mind this universal human nature while dealing with protest and dissent by aggrieved parties and political opposition.
(KC Kalkura is an advocate from Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh)