After declaring a national emergency on Feb. 15, U.S. President Donald Trump said: “I didn’t need to do this, but I’d rather do it much faster.” He was referring to the speed with which he could now initiate special powers to access the funds needed to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Clearly, expediency shaped the president’s decision—and will shape the legal challenges to it, too.
Despite Trump’s self-serving reasons for declaring a national emergency, such executive actions are hardly unusual in the United States. Since 1976, when the National Emergencies Act was passed, this legal instrument has been used on numerous occasions to block properties owned by those contributing to conflicts in Libya and Somalia, support the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, prevent financial deals between U.S. entities and Iran, and take action when democracy was deemed to be undermined in Belarus and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The main difference, of course, between the past and the present is the brazenness with which Trump has circumvented congressional authority on just about every legislative turn since he came into office in 2016.
A national emergency can be a dangerous tool—as India discovered during the Emergency period, from 1975 to 1977. India’s Emergency was far more unprecedented than Trump’s—and far more threatening to democracy. But it shows how much damage such powers can do in the wrong hands.
India has declared a state of emergency only three times. The other two were both military crises, but the Emergency itself was a result of what the government, then led by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, considered a threat to its security because of “internal disturbances.” A combination of factors led to the declaration, including rising food prices and economic distress, street protests organized by leaders of a fast-growing opposition who accused Gandhi and her supporters of widespread corruption, the government’s forceful treatment of 400,000 striking railway workers, and an impending court ruling on the 1971 elections.
In declaring an emergency under Article 352 of the Indian Constitution, Gandhi blamed the “hidden hand” of the CIA in stoking internal unrest. But whatever she said in public, one of her main purposes was to avoid a court order—which accused her of electoral malpractice in the 1971 elections—so that she could remain in power. The use of such powers to get around a legal threat hasn’t yet happened in the United States, but with Trump facing multiple possible accusations and regularly attacking his own intelligence agencies, it doesn’t seem out of the range of possibilities.
There are, of course, stark differences between India in the 1970s and the recent declaration in the United States. The Indian Emergency Proclamation Order immediately suspended fundamental rights, censored the press, and allowed the state to make mass arrests under the cover of a legal order that was passed to maintain internal security in 1971, months before a war between India and Pakistan broke out. More than 900 such arrests were made in the first 24 hours of the Emergency. Twenty-six political organizations were banned. According to Amnesty International, by the end of the Emergency period, more than 100,000 Indians had been incarcerated. None of this is the case in the United States, where, despite Trump’s repeated threats against the media, the press remains unmuzzled.
With these caveats in mind, India’s 21-month Emergency comes with some possible lessons for Americans.
First, the Emergency called into question the foundation of the social contract between the citizen and the state, as well as that between the government and the opposition. Simply put, the awesome powers held and used by the state once and for all snapped the legitimacy accrued by it in the ballot box. Union workers, thousands of whom were put behind bars, rapidly appreciated the need to link themselves to political parties with the hope of deriving protection in times of crisis.
In the post-Emergency period, barefaced attempts by successive governments to silence the press were justified (at least to themselves) by using the Emergency as an example or a threshold below which state-inspired coercion became acceptable. “It’s not as bad as the Emergency” became the rationale to justify the heavy hand of the state—even when used for nakedly political purposes.
But the Emergency also led to the awakening of a political consciousness in India that coalesced in the formation of an opposition to the Indian National Congress. This grouping of disparate actors with varying political associations finally defeated Gandhi in the 1977 elections, soon after her Emergency powers were rescinded. Many of these actors were released from prison only a few weeks before the elections, and their experiences made clear the need for an alternative in India. Some 2,400 candidates fought the election campaign in 1977. Out of 542 seats, 292 were won by the new Janata party.
This was the first non-Congress government in independent India. Its eventual collapse in 1980, as a result of sharp ideological and personal differences notwithstanding, made it clear that India could be governed by a party or a group of parties apart from the Congress. As a result of the Congress’s attempts to mute difference and opposition during the Emergency, a center-right verve in Indian politics quickly electrified a constituency that proved to be decisive in the late 1990s. This is when the Bharatiya Janata Party, also in power currently, led an alliance and formed the government. In short, the Emergency served to catalyze the political right—and to end the dominance of the old order.
That emergencies have a life of their own became clear within the first few months after Gandhi chose to shut down democracy. Congress leaders, both at the center in New Delhi and in the states, used the time to consolidate their political base, with little or no requirement to adhere to the rule of law. Gandhi’s son, Sanjay Gandhi, experimented with a brutal population control scheme, carrying out forced sterilization campaigns in parts of northern India with opaque judicial and legal mandates.
Attempts to consolidate power and run ad hoc public health campaigns were led, as archival documents underline, without the full authority of the prime minister. Gandhi’s “cabal,” as the British Foreign Office argued, “grew out of the need for secrecy.” Soon after, its members began to keep secrets from Gandhi. In sum, while absolutism was engineered by Gandhi, the leader of the nation, it allowed her and several others within her coterie to exercise a form of despotism that temporarily turned parts of India into an Orwellian state.
The Indian Emergency bears little direct parallels to the situation in the United States as yet. But it underlines why, in democratic systems of government, emergency powers, once unleashed, can and potentially will acquire a life of their own. Relying on emergency powers, if done often enough, not only potentially corrodes institutions but can consolidate power in the other end of the political spectrum. The shape such opposition could take in the United States is unclear, but its effects ought not to be disregarded. As India’s Emergency shows, periods of absolutism aren’t blips in democratic history but have long-lasting effects that are not always immediately obvious.