(This article was first published on 26 July 2021 and is being republished from The Quint's archives on the occasion of L K Advani's birthday.)
All of India knows that Narendra Modi owes a lot to Lal Krishna Advani for the rise of his political career. Modi never misses a photo-op to show how much he respects the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) patriarch, who is one of the party's two principal architects, the other being the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Modi has often hailed Advani as one of the greats who fearlessly resisted the Emergency.
The draconian rule (1975-77) imposed by Indira Gandhi saw tens of thousands of political opponents of the Congress jailed, pro-democracy activists, including journalists persecuted, the media muzzled by blanket censorship, the judiciary enslaved, and people’s civil liberties snatched away. Among those imprisoned were stalwarts like Jayaprakash Narayan, Morarji Desai, Vajpayee, Chandrashekhar and Advani.
Each year on 25 June, which marks the anniversary of the declaration of the Emergency, Modi unfailingly makes a statement condemning the attack on democracy and the heroic struggle for its restoration by the likes of Advani.
But one thing he won’t ever do is read, or ask people to read, Advani’s jail diary titled ‘A Prisoner’s Scrap-Book’, which the latter wrote during his nineteen months of incarceration.
Published by Arnold Associates in 1978, it carries a highly appreciative foreword by the then Prime Minister Morarji Desai.
This passionate and erudite critique of totalitarianism, though sadly forgotten by many Indians today, qualifies as one the finest works of prison literature.
Advani made full use of the library in Bangalore’s Central Jail to write it, as is evident from its extensive references to the scholarly works on democracy and dictatorship around the world.
Modi won’t read or recommend Advani’s diary because, seen in today’s context, it indicts his own government’s numerous and continuing transgressions against democracy and press freedom.
The incarceration of thousands of people without trial under UAPA; slapping of the sedition law on all and sundry who criticise the government; the custodial death of one prominent prisoner, Stan Swamy, an 84-year-old Jesuit priest and tribal rights activist who was denied bail despite his failing health; raids on the offices of Dainik Bhaskar for its bold investigative reporting on the bodies of COVID victims floating in the Ganga; refusal to tell the nation the truth about ‘PegasusGate’; corrupting the judiciary at the highest levels; coercive use of the CBI, ED and IT against political opponents… the list is disturbingly long.
Advani's Diary Approvingly Quotes Nehru, Modi's Bête Noire
Not many in Modi’s BJP know that Advani was a great admirer of Jawaharlal Nehru’s views on democracy. This is what he wrote on 14 November 1975:
“Today is Nehru Jayanti. I have had occasion recently to glance through a … passage from Nehru’s presidential address to the Lucknow Congress in 1936, which applies to the current situation. Nehru said:
‘Comrades, being interested in psychology, I have watched the process of moral and intellectual decay and realised, even more than I did previously, how autocratic power corrupts and degrades and vulgarises. Of one thing I must say a few words, for to me it is one of the most vital things that I value. That is the deprivation of civil liberties in India.
A Government that has to rely on the Criminal Law Amendment Act and similar laws, that suppresses the press and literature, that bans hundreds of organisations, that keeps people in prison without trial and that does so many things that are happening in India today, is a Government that has ceased to have even a shadow of justification for its existence.
I can never adjust myself to these conditions; I find them intolerable. And yet I find many of my countrymen complacent about them, some even supporting them, some, who have made the practice of sitting on the fence into a fine art, being neutral when such questions are discussed’” (page 77).
Then comes Advani’s sharp comment on how Indira Gandhi was doing precisely what her father had decried during the British rule:
“Judging the British Government by its onslaught on civil liberties, its reliance on lawless laws, its suppression of press freedom, its outlawing of organisations, and its incarceration of people without trial, Nehru declared it as bereft of ‘even a shadow of justification for its existence’. Nothing that the British Government did in 1936 in the matter of civil liberties can match the crimes committed against democracy by the present government.
Nehru expressed dismay over the process of intellectual and moral decay and the debasing influence of autocratic power. He felt pained that while all this was happening some Indians had made a fine art of fence sitting. One wonders what he would have felt about today’s Congressmen, most of whom whisper their unhappiness over the present scene in private but indulge in loud-mouthed sycophancy when speaking in public.
Replace 'Congressmen' with 'BJPmen' in the above passage, and the last line might well read: “One wonders what JP, Morarji, Vajpayee and other brave fighters against the Emergency would have felt about today’s BJPmen, most of whom whisper their unhappiness over the present scene in private but indulge in loud-mouthed sycophancy when speaking in public” (emphasis added).
Stan Swamy’s Death, MEA’s Response, and Constitutional Tyranny
Facing widespread criticism from around the world, including the UN Human Rights Commission on the death of Stan Swamy, Modi’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) had the temerity to claim that the case was dealt with 'strictly in accordance with law'.
See how the immorality of such a claim is exposed by Advani’s diary:
“Every other day, Indira Gandhi and her cohorts keep asserting that whatever they have done during these past months is ‘within the four corners of the Constitution’. The charge being levelled against them by the opposition and by the Western Press that they have subverted democracy is therefore untenable, it is argued.
The history of Nazi Germany conclusively shows that doing anything constitutionally is not necessarily the same thing as doing it in a democratic manner. Hitler always used to boast that he had done nothing illegal or unconstitutional. Indeed, he made a democratic constitution an instrument of dictatorship. William Shirer has noted: ‘Though the Weimar Republic was destroyed, the Weimar Constitution was never formally abrogated by Hitler. Indeed and ironically, Hitler based the legality of his rule on the despised republican Constitution.’” (page 198).
Also, read these lines to know why Advani may well have written then about Modi.
“I remember a former press secretary of the US President, Bill Moyers, saying once: 'Government and the Press are not allies, they are adversaries. One has the mandate to conduct the affairs of state, the other the privilege to find out all it can about what is going on. It is the nature of democracy to thrive upon this conflict without being consumed by it.'
“As has been already made out, the Indian Press has never been an adversary of Government, it has been an ally, albeit an unwilling one. Why then has it been so severely punished, it may be asked. The truth is that there is a very solid basis for Indira Gandhi’s pique against the Indian Press. It is the common characteristic of all despots that while they may be willing on occasion to condone criticism of Government, they cannot lightly overlook criticism of their person” (emphasis added; page 205).
Modi and Shah on Press Freedom – When Deeds Are Miles Apart From Words
There is another characteristic of despots. They say what they do not mean. And when you do what they have asked you to do, they will punish you. Here are two examples.
On 18 April 2018, the prime minister's office tweeted something that must have gladdened the hearts of all lovers of press freedom. “I want this Government to be criticised. Criticism makes democracy strong: PM @narendramodi.”
Similarly, Home Minister Amit Shah tweeted the following on 16 November 2020: “Greetings on #NationalPressDay. Our media fraternity is working tirelessly towards strengthening the foundations of our great nation. Modi govt is committed towards the freedom of Press and strongly oppose those who throttle it. I applaud Media’s remarkable role during COVID-19.”
Now, re-read these tweets in the light of Advani’s description of an interesting but instructive episode from Hitler’s Germany.
“Censorship has naturally made newspapers in India dull and drab. They read like official handouts, inane and insipid.
This happened in Nazi Germany also, following the imposition of censorship. At one stage, Goebbels himself told editors not to be too timid, and not to make their papers so monotonous.
A Berlin editor, Welke took Geobbels seriously. In his next issue, he came out with a sarcastic piece chiding the Propaganda Ministry for its red tape, and for the heavy hand with which it held down the Press and so made it dull. Within days of this publication, the journal was suspended, and the editor was carted off to jail.
Something similar has been happening these days in New Delhi.
Encouraged by repeated declarations by the Prime Minister that press censorship had been relaxed, some pressmen, particularly foreign pressmen, have been trying to relay something other than the colourless press notes of the PIB. But this has only landed them in trouble. During the past weeks Reuters and UPI, both international news agencies, have had their telephone and teleprinter lines disconnected for alleged violation of censorship rates" (page 206).
Hasn’t something similar been happening these days in New Delhi? What did Dainik Bhaskar, Bharat Samachar, NewsClick, and several journalists who were 'carted off to jail' do?
They simply followed Modi’s own call to 'criticise this government', because 'criticism makes democracy strong'. They believed in Shah’s assurance that the 'Modi govt is committed towards the freedom of Press and strongly opposes those who throttle it'.
Advani continues, this time by quoting from James Madison, the 4th President of the United States, who helped frame the Bill of Rights in 1789.
“If one single attribute were to be identified as the hallmark of democracy, it is freedom of expression. Madison has very aptly said: ‘A popular government, without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.’”
The Modi government does not want people to 'arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives'.
Proof: the Right to Information has been diluted. Journalists’ access to ministries has been curtailed. A large section of the media has been domesticated.
PegasusGate and Watergate: Democracy Needs ‘No-Men’, Not ‘Yes-Men’
Advani’s jail diary also reads as if it is commenting on the still-unfolding PegasusGate or Snoopgate scandal:
“In his excellent analysis of the Watergate episode, The Fall of Richard Nixon, Theodore H. White has made this perceptive observation:
‘The true crime of Richard Nixon was that he broke the faith that binds America together and for this he was driven from power.
The faith be broke was critical — that somewhere in American life there is at least one man who stands for law. The faith holds that all men are equal before the law and are protected by it; and no matter how the faith may be betrayed elsewhere by the ugly compromises of daily striving, at one particular point, the Presidency, justice is beyond the possibility of a fix.’
“Indira Gandhi has…shaken the faith of many in the future of Indian democracy. Restoration of this faith is the task to which every thinking Indian needs to address himself. How to do this is a matter which each one of us has to decide for himself. But all of us can do one thing in common: shed fear and speak the truth as we see it. This in itself will be no mean contribution to the cause of democracy” (emphasis added; page 214).
'Shed fear'. How relevant to the times we live in.
In his diary entry on 10 April 1976, Advani writes appreciatively about an article in the influential left-leaning weekly Mainstream, founded by the legendary journalist Nikhil Chakravarty.
Mainstream was earlier a staunch supporter of Indira Gandhi. But the excesses of the Emergency made it a critic. The article, titled ‘On saying ‘No’', was penned by CLR Shastri, a veteran journalist of yester-decades.
“One does not come across many articles of this kind nowadays. Both the author and the publisher have to have guts for such writings. The article bemoans the proliferation of Yes-Men in the country and puts in a powerful plea for No-Men.
Shastri writes: ‘Freedom of expression is the first of the celebrated four freedoms, and one ought in my considered opinion to be appreciated as much for saying ‘No’ as for saying ‘Yes’. I should like to go further and affirm that one ought to be appreciated more for saying ‘No’ than for saying ‘Yes’. To me, ‘No’ is as musical as Apollo’s lute.
A democracy properly so called connotes the existence of an opposition. And an opposition, I need hardly stress, is a collection, a conglomeration, a condominium of No-Men.’”
Congress Sycophancy Then, BJP Sycophancy Now
Demonising Modi’s critics as 'anti-nationals' has become a standard practice by his followers. Precisely for this reason, we should read another incisive underground pamphlet authored by Advani in April 1976 – ‘Anatomy of Fascism,’ by A Detenu.
He writes: “The need for demonology of sorts is felt by all politicians with an authoritarian streak, even by those functioning in a democracy. The commitment of such politicians to democracy being fragile, they have no scruples about means, so long as those means help them hold on to power” (page 268).
About Congressmen’s sycophancy for Indira Gandhi, Advani writes: “Political idolatry of this kind, vulgar and uncouth, is the first and foremost trait of the fascist state.” Aren’t we seeing similar sycophancy today in the BJP?" (page 255).
How does Advani end his book? With these lines:
“Some once said to Gandhiji that after all the British Government is not all that evil. It had also been doing a lot of good to the people. Mahatmaji’s reply was clear and categorical. He said:
‘There is no state run by Nero or Mussolini which has no good points about it; but we have to reject the whole. There are in our country, grand public roads and palatial educational institutions. But they are part of a system which crushes the nation. I should have nothing to do with it. They are like the fabled snake with a brilliant jewel on its hood, but which has, of course, poison.’
Gandhiji’s observation is as much relevant today as it was then.”
Of course, it would be wrong to liken Modi’s India to Hitler’s Germany or Mussolini’s Italy. It is also much freer than Indira Gandhi’s India during the Emergency. But if we are not vigilant, India will, surely, descend to the dark depths of despotism.
I cannot leave the readers of this article without quoting from the foreword to Advani’s jail diary by Morarji Desai. It was in the Janata Party government led by Desai that Advani served as the minister of information and broadcasting, and played a pivotal role in undoing the anti-democracy laws and measures introduced during the Emergency.
I am sure even this laudatory recommendation by a former prime minister, and a fellow Gujarati, will not enthuse Modi to read Advani’s prison diary. If he does, and if he reforms himself in the light of his one-time mentor’s sage thoughts on democracy, India will be the beneficiary.
(The writer, who served as an aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is founder of the ‘Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation’. He tweets @SudheenKulkarni and welcomes comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)