Mrs. Gandhi's Watergate

by | July 19, 1975

India's Prime Minister Indira Gandhi has locked up droves of her political enemies. She has suspended constitutional rights and imposed such drastic press censorship that even publishing news of the censorship rules is banned. More than 1000 persons have been jailed, including the venerable Jayaprakash Narayan, the prominent associate of Mahatma Gandhi.

Mrs. Gandhi's current troubles began with her conviction by a local Allahabad judge for two minor election abuses. These involved taking undue advantage of her prime ministerial office to wage her personal political wars. The judge decided that Mrs.

Gandhi improperly ordered government officials to assist her in her bid for reelection to parliament. To Americans this sounded like a replay of Nixon and Watergate. Cartoonist Paul Szep portrayed Indira saying, in Hindi, "I am not a crook." Mrs. Gandhi herself contributed to the impression by announcing that she was seeking to protect not herself but "the institution of the prime ministership." The Watergate parallel was apt in several respects, but Mrs. Gandhi by her own subsequent actions quickly indicated its limits.

Following her lower-court conviction Mrs. Gandhi won a tactical legal victory by securing a ruling allowing Supreme Court. The opposition however insisted that she step aside until her case was resolved to spare India the indignity of being led by a convicted prime minister. Mrs. Gandhi preferred to stay put and when the opposition threatened to launch a campaign of civil disobedience she clamped down with unprecedented severity. Mrs. Gandhi contended that the public campaign to force her resignation was evidence of a "conspiracy" to oust her from office, which justified invoking emergency powers. To many others her use of these powers, though formally legal as her earlier actions were technically illegal, seems conclusive evidence of her unfitness for office. While affording her a temporary respite, her crackdown has definitely jeopardized her case before the Supreme Court. She has been badly damaged by her encouragement of the impression that, despairing of the merits of her case, she is now attempting to intimidate the court as well as her political antagonists.

Mrs. Gandhi has done what Nixon might have wished he could do. Her actions look like the same kind of cynical and selfish perversion of law practiced by Nixon. But Mrs. Gandhi has plunged ahead where Nixon drew back precisely because she knows she has substantial backing. Few Americans other than Richard Nixon thought that his survival in office to the bitter end was of national importance. Nixon manipulated legalities because his political base had disintegrated and all he had to hide behind was "the institution of the presidency." Mrs. Gandhi can count on passionate public support in many quarters and is well aware that her opponents, though powerful, are nonetheless a vulnerable minority. Mrs. Gandhi has a weak legal case but strong public backing; her opponents have a strong legal case but weak public support. Mrs. Gandhi could be said to have cast herself in the role of an aggressive Andrew Jackson rather than of a cowering Nixon. In his grandstanding defiance of the Supreme Court in 1832 President Andrew Jackson declaimed, "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!" Jackson boldly addressed the Court as an embodiment of a higher law of popular sovereignty. Mrs. Gandhi may have decided to make this same gamble.

India, 28 years after the attainment of independence, bears many resemblances to Jackson's America. In both the United States and India the anxieties associated with the overthrow of foreign rule gave way after several decades to a jubilant nationalist self-confidence and a democratic leveling of ranks that disregarded legal formalities. Like Jackson Mrs. Gandhi has identified herself with both these moods. She won great popularity by presiding over the war to separate Bangladesh from Pakistan and was similarly applauded when she abolished the privileged status guaranteed by India's Constitution to the former ruling maharajas. Once boxed in by Pakistan, India now is unrivaled on the Indian subcontinent and increasingly inclined to show the flag—and the bomb.

Mrs. Gandhi's unquestioned popularity has encouraged her to throw her weight around, It has also driven her opposition—which includes a number of disgruntled maharajas—to explore extra-parliamentary ways to stymie her. By a resort to Mahatma Gandhi-style hunger strikes and marches, coupled with an assist from India's staunchly independent judiciary, her opponents have now succeeded in provoking a confrontation that may yet topple her. Mrs. Gandhi's ideological supporters are primarily socialist, secular and pro-Soviet Union. Her opponents tend to be right-wing, capitalist businessmen and Hindu religious elements who are vigorously anti-Communist. Their leader, however, is ironically unrepresentative of this coalition. Seventy-two years old, Jayaprakash Narayan is virtually the only authentic hero of India's nationalist struggle still politically active. Long a selfless crusader for good causes layaprakash, or "J.P." as he is usually called, inspires the special kind of reverence India bestows on political ascetics. J.P. has lent his unquestioned luster to Mrs. Gandhi's opposition but it is doubtful whether J.P. exercises much influence over those in his shadow. More typical of the persons who have gathered behind J.P.'s symbolic struggle is Raj Narain, the obstreperous lifelong enemy of Mrs. Gandhi's family who lodged the complaint that led to Mrs. Gandhi's conviction. After failing to unseat her inher itKal constituency Raj Narain has now tasted revenge by catching her in a legal trap. Persistence has paid off for Raj Narain who has in the past futilely accused Mrs. Gandhi of such crimes as illegally taking precious jewels out of the country to adorn her person while on foreign tours.

When Raj Narain lost the election he appealed to the courts because he knew they were outside Mrs. Gandhi's control. The Indian judiciary resembles in many respects the relatively autonomous American judiciary. This is not so much a result of Indian fondness for the American doctrine of separation-of-powers as of a historical accident. Before Indians gained their independence in 1947 the Indian judiciary had become more fully Indianized than other parts of the British imperial government. Indian judges established a reputation for themselves as defenders of the civil rights of Indians against British arbitrariness. As a result the judiciary managed to survive largely unchanged when the British left. The most radical, most fully Indianized component of the pre-1947

British governing structure then became the most conservative, most anglicized force in Indian public life. Unlike the civil service inherited from the British, which was quickly subjected to the political control of the governing Congress party—as evidenced by Mrs.

Gandhi's crime—the judiciary was spared. Until Mrs. Gandhi recently created a sensation by violating the custom, the person appointed chief justice had always been simply the most senior justice of the Supreme Court. Securely insulated, the court remained calmly aloof in an otherwise tumultuously politicized country. In fact, as in the United States, the high level of politicization of other governing institutions enhanced the judiciary's reputation for incorruptibility and the political importance of that reputation, judicial Investigations of disputed issues have become an important way of restoring public confidence.

If India successfully weathers the current crisis it will most probably be due to the great esteem in which the Supreme Court is held. If the court decides for Mrs. Gandhi there is a good chance their decision will be respected by all parties. If the court decides against her she will have to resign or break totally with India's constitutional structure. There is no reason to conclude that she is prepared to do that. To date, her actions, though extreme, have not violated the Constitution, which permits the president, on the advice of the prime minister, to declare a temporary state of emergency. Mrs. Gandhi knows that India, like the United States, is too complex a country to be readily clapped into a Salazar-style dungeon. Her efforts to curtail protest and curb the press even temporarily have not been entirely successful. Newspapers leaving blank spaces where editorials would have been suggests the strength of the Indian spirit of free speech. Only public support has permitted her to act as forcefully as she has and this will not persist if she abandons legal procedures entirely. Mrs. Gandhi's Jacksonian populism has put a severe strain on India's institutional structure. But that structure is well entrenched and beyond it there remains the threat of massive civil disobedience in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi. If she loses her appeal it is more probable that Mrs. Gandhi will resign and rule through a surrogate than try to hold onto power by wrecking the Constitution.

This article ran in the July 19, 1975 issue of the magazine.

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