Letter to the Editor: Pratinav Anil Responds to Arvind Rajagopal

Pratinav Anil Responds to Arvind Rajagopal’s Review of His Book with Christophe Jaffrelot, India’s First Dictatorship: The Emergency, 1975–77 (September 1, 2021):

IN HIS REVIEW of India’s First Dictatorship, Arvind Rajagopal bizarrely faults — twice, in the same words, as if a broken record — my co-author and I for ignoring “the Emergency’s key legacy,” the mainstreaming of Hindu nationalism. That’s one way of reading the 20-odd pages we dedicate to the matter, concluding that “the Sangh Parivar gained a new legitimacy in 1975–7 because of its role in the underground resistance.”

Rajagopal, a professor of media studies — since I’m on the subject of métiers, I am an historian, and not, as he insinuates, a political scientist — true to his déformation professionnelle, appears more fascinated with rhetoric than the real world. On his account, in discounting the discursive import of “socialism” in Indira Gandhi’s dictatorship, Jaffrelot and I fail to register the seismic shift to neoliberalism in the wake of the Emergency. Only that, rhetoric apart, Mrs. Gandhi’s, and before her Nehru’s, were both extremely capital-friendly regimes, doing the bidding of big business, suppressing labor, and recanting all their socialist pretentions, land reform and nationalization included, from day one.

“The Emergency,” Rajagopal writes, “represented the last time that state reason proclaimed its superiority to popular understanding and used violence to reinforce its pronouncements. Thereafter, public opinion was enthroned, and ruling parties learned never to belittle it again.” Really? Scarce popular approval was sought to crush the millworkers’ strike in 1982 or to put down the Maoist insurgency in the mofussil in the 2000s. The same goes for the demonetization of 86 percent of India’s circulating cash in 2016 and the abrupt and unforgiving lockdown of 2020, both of which produced mass displacement, starvation, and unemployment. India’s rulers, in short, have remained as imperious and anti-majoritarian as ever.

Finally, I invite Rajagopal to substantiate his claim that we conclude our book by suggesting that the Emergency “represented little of lasting significance.” We argue quite the opposite, in fact: inter alia, “[t]he Emergency, incontrovertibly, was a milestone”; “the Emergency accentuated the criminalization of politics”; “[t]he Emergency also, as we noted, furthered the mainstreaming of Hindu nationalism”; “the Emergency was, finally, a watershed moment for industrial relations.”

Jaffrelot and I detail how Indira Gandhi curbed dissent during the Emergency, torturing her political opponents, crippling unions, banging up over 100,000 citizens in prison, undermining Parliament and the judiciary, emasculating the press, and sterilizing and deporting the working poor. Rajagopal’s charge, then, that our “gentle scrutiny” doesn’t quite amount to “criticism” proper, isn’t just misguided; it’s risible.

Arvind Rajagopal Responds to Pratinav Anil (September 7, 2021):

I didn’t expect the authors to thank me for my review. However, Anil’s note, that I assume the first author endorses, with its abundance of invective, betrays a lack of substance and provides further evidence of precisely the problem I diagnosed in my review, namely, substituting a cascade of facts for analysis of a major event in postcolonial Indian history. His response, if taken seriously, validates my sense that the book under review is incoherent. It is interesting that, given what I think is the serious character of the criticisms, the first author (who is senior) is silent, and the second author is insouciant in his note.

Perhaps this contains its own message about how seriously we should take the book. Anil makes no attempt to reconcile apparent contradictions my review has pointed out, for example, or to clarify the larger provenance of the book’s argument. If Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s Emergency represented India’s “first dictatorship,” is there a second dictatorship the authors want to point to (e.g., the current prime minister’s rule), and is there any distinction between the two? Their implied answer, on my reading, would be that there is not really a significant distinction between Mrs. Gandhi’s and Modi’s regimes. But the historical shifts from Indian independence to the Emergency and beyond are significant and cannot be enfolded so easily within a single conceptual frame.

The key question posed by the book is whether and how Mrs. Gandhi’s Emergency of 1975–1977 had lasting relevance for Indian politics. I have already noted the surprising claims to continuity in a book that ostensibly argues that this Emergency was a political watershed. For example, the authors write: “For all the high political changes of the mid-1970s […] for large swathes of society, the Emergency made no fundamental difference: neither for political prisoners […] nor for the Indian masses, and especially not for the poor.” How do we square this assertion with Anil’s commonsense counter that the Emergency was a milestone in history, that it helped criminalize politics, or that it brought Hindu nationalism into the mainstream?

The point is not to list the Emergency’s features or count the number of pages devoted to a given topic but to clarify what difference their inclusion makes for the analysis. The reader is presented with a dizzying array of facts without acknowledging that concepts are indispensable for making sense of them, as abstractions retaining an explanatory force over information. One could not grasp such a historical process without attending to words and their nuances, something Anil disparages as “rhetoric.” The dismissal reveals his insensitivity to the genesis and force of concepts and their adequacy for the Indian context, subjects that have long occupied Indian social scientists.

Meanwhile, the authors’ key term authoritarianism is both inapposite and mired in its own history of false or mistaken comparison. The authors present the Emergency as a case study in political authoritarianism; hence they shoehorn their history to suit the definition. Lacking a theory of political change as such, Jaffrelot and Anil do not explain what analytical traction a term like authoritarianism, with its Cold War provenance, provides in an age of illiberal democracy, where authority appears radically decentralized.

In the authors’ view, India was always authoritarian in some way or another. The gravitational force of this category flattens all historical distinctions for the authors or makes them indistinct:

For other watersheds [besides the Emergency] are equally compelling: 1967, the first time Congress hegemony was seriously threatened; 1964, the year of Nehru’s death; or even 1947, when Indian elites for the first time came to fully control […] the Indian republic.

What theoretical concerns drive the authors to draw such decades-long continuities from the moment of independence onward? They are on the hunt for “authoritarianism,” and hence other factors are sidelined. Their approach is worth comparing to an influential trend in the relevant literature.

It has been some decades since scholars such as Partha Chatterjee and Sudipta Kaviraj began to redefine the study of Indian politics as something not confined mainly to parties, elections, and electoral campaigns, as American political scientists tended to assume. Early arguments drew on Antonio Gramsci’s notion of passive revolution to capture the combination of progress alongside elite power and of limits to democracy achieved more through consent than coercion. Chatterjee has more recently drawn on the idea of political society to describe the domain of effective action that lies outside the formal purview of liberal politics. Such arguments deploy terms and concepts that can more realistically reflect the competing pulls of democracy and capital, as these structure Indian politics.

Merely categorizing a regime as democratic or authoritarian omits appreciation of historical and social dynamics, produced by interacting trends whose outcomes change over time. In that sense, Jaffrelot and Anil’s analysis presents a theoretical step backward, toward an older and more reductive mode of scrutiny, as if from afar: a keyword or two will suffice — authoritarian, sultanist, or some other — to define and grasp a regime, and even the decades-old history of a nation. Such a poverty of theory does no justice to the wealth of detail the book presents.

Pratinav Anil Responds to Arvind Rajagopal (September 9, 2021):

It’s a shame Rajagopal chooses to ignore the substance of my letter, preferring instead to whinge about my “insouciance,” the original sin of skewering a “senior.” Forgive my lèse-majesté. By his own admission now, much of his criticism of India’s First Dictatorship turns not on its contents but diagnoses “implied” in it. These inferences are, of course, his own perverse misinterpretations. Rajagopal could have beaten a more dignified retreat.

To his litany, he now adds the droll charge that Jaffrelot and I incorrectly identify Indira Gandhi’s dictatorship as an authoritarian regime. Apparently, the use of authoritarianism is “inapposite” to the Indian genius, mired as the word is by its “Cold War provenance” [sic]. Spoken like a true patriot. Indira Gandhi couldn’t have said it better herself. As an aside, if words are tainted by their provenance, perhaps Rajagopal ought to reconsider using his appellation, hobbled as the word professor is by its association with the Puritans, who took it to mean — pejoratively — “openly religious.” But then again, as a firm believer in hierarchy, he probably would not mind.

Arvind Rajagopal Responds to Pratinav Anil (September 14, 2021): 

Anil’s response will not illuminate readers about why this exchange is continuing, so I will forbear from burdening them. My review and follow-up clarify the issues that I think are important. In my view, Anil’s responses distract from the debate over his book with a series of false accusations and misstatements. They cannot reassure any reader that the authors are interested in addressing the issues my review raised about Indian politics.

A word about hierarchy: It may be liberal etiquette to pretend it doesn’t exist or that it doesn’t matter. To acknowledge that Jaffrelot is a senior author is to note that his name appears first, and thus out of alphabetic order. Readers can draw their own conclusions about the fact that the second author alone has responded, and that the first author has not put his name to these responses. One possible conclusion is precisely that hierarchy is being performed in the duet unfolding before us.


Pratinav Anil, a Clarendon scholar, is a DPhil candidate at St John’s College, University of Oxford.

Arvind Rajagopal teaches at New York University and is author of, among other works, the prize-winning Politics After Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Public in India. His latest book, on a global history of media theory, is under contract with Duke University Press.