Emergency anniversary: Support from a servile middle class allows authoritarian regimes to take hold of India


The 43rd anniversary of the imposition of the Emergency has spawned two parallel narratives, both suffering from the drawback of exclusively linking the authoritarian tendency in India to the personality of the prime minister helming the nation at a point of time. These narratives say Indira Gandhi invoked the Constitution to impose the Emergency and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has crafted what is called an undeclared state of Emergency because of their irrepressible urge to establish absolute supremacy.
In reality, though, India periodically flirts with authoritarianism because of the silent support of the middle class, which dominates all aspects of the country’s governance structure – from judiciary to media, from bureaucracy to big business. The middle class pines for authoritarianism even as it tends to be servile. Perhaps one is not is possible without the other.
This insight into the middle class is provided by the French-Moroccan writer, Leila Slimani, in her brilliant novel, Lullaby, which fictionally tackles class relations. Seeing her grandchildren and their ways, the grandmother observes, “We would like to widen the horizon of these children doomed to become sensible, middle class people, at once servile and authoritarian. Doomed to be cowards.” This widening of the horizon presumably includes cultivating a sense of the world beyond one’s own.Slimani’s observation of the French middle class is as true of its counterpart in India. The quest for material comfort and the markers of modernity turns the middle class authoritarian and regimented. These are considered vital for imposing order and discipline on the society. From office to home, the Indian middle class story revolves around its members resorting to overt and covert modes of domination, often in gross violation of rules and human decency.File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former prime minister Indira Gandhi. File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former prime minister Indira Gandhi.That is why the middle class is partial to Indira and Modi, seeing in the two leaders a larger, dramatic version of their own little selves, a sublimation of their own desire to dominate. Such a worldview accepts the illegitimate exercise of power to maintain order over a world it believes is waiting to plunge into chaos. It is an evil considered necessary for the progress of the middle class, which shrewdly projects it as a national imperative.