There has been a lot of crowing over the past couple of days about a "victory" for democracy in India. And, indeed, had there not beem some deeply instilled democratic principles and institutions, Indira Gandhi would still be in power and India's 600-million plus people probably would still be without many of the rights that we cherish as among the most basic.
But it is time to take a closer look at what happened on the subcontinent these past 21 months - and to realize that more was at play in the recent election than devotion to democratic principles.
Aside from the abrogation of fundamental rights and jailing of her political opponents, indira Gandhi made two basic political mistakes compounded by a third and unforgivable political sin, that cost her and her party their hold on power.
Her first mistake was try to anoint her younger son, Sanjay, with great political power when he had done nothing to earn it. In doing so, she ingnored the lessons of the Indian subcontinent that cost two leaders in neighboring countries to India their power - and one, his life.
As one president observer of South Asia said early in the Indian emergency: Ayub Khan (Pakistan's long-time military ruler) was overthrown after he tried to invest his son with power, and Sheikh Mujibar Rahman, the charismatic first leader of Bangladesh, was overthrown and killed after he tried to groom his nephew. The same political fate, this observer predicted, sooner or later would come to Mrs. Gandhi.
Mrs. Gandhi, it could be argued, owed a great deal fo her rise to political prominence to being her father's daughter. The Nehru family history was synonymous with modern Indian political history. She had also played a role in the nationalist movement as a youngster and had served in a variety of party and government roles before she moved for power herself after her father's death.
Sanjay, at 30, had done little but show a great procilivity for muddling up opportunies handed him by his mother. Suddenly, there he was at the right hand of power with an apparent mandate to build up the young wing of the Congress Party to supplant long-established, if moribund, party leaders.
This was a direct slap at both political leaders who had been around since and - perhaps more important - an ethos in India that says age and experienece are to be repected. Democratic principles had little to do with the resulting backlash.
The prime minister's second mistake was to allow India's birth control program to be turned into a crudes sterilization drive. It may have been well-intentioned. After all, with 600-million plus people, an effective birth control program is a major priority for India. The campaign, as it was pressed by Sanjay, has probably set back birth control efforts for years, however.
By using strong-arm tactics and economic coercion, the government aliented a small middle class on marol grounds and, far more important, teeming peasantry on religious and social grounds. For a Moslem minority in a predominantly Hindu India, a sterlization drive was an affront for religious, political and social reasons. For a poor farmer or menial laborer - Moslem or Hindu - a large family is still viewed as the best insurance for care in old age, and no amount of reasoning by the local government health official could change that overnight. The result was a massive outpouring of sentiment against Gandhi and her party that, again, had little to do with democratic principles.
With all this sentiment running against her, it might be asked, why did Indira Gandhi call the election in the first place? After all, her opponents were locked in jail, her party dominated the country and her security forces had shown that they could root out troublemakers efficiently.
Indira Gandhi is probably the only one who knows which of the theories that have been put forward is right. One holds that she could have harbored a genuine and deep-felt commitment to democracy and believed that no time was better things in her favor that were not likely to get better: good harvests, an economy under control but beginning to heat up again, a seemingly quiescent and appreciative eletorate.
Another is taht she simply calculated that her life would be much easier if she had an electrol "mandate" for her emergency and that, for the reasons stated above, the time was ripe to seek it.
She obviously miscalculated, with disastrous results for her family and her party. The reason she miscalculated may be traced to her third great mistake. The psycho-historians will have a field day with this question. After all, in 11 years as prime minister, she ahd shown herself to be a highly astute political infighter and her electoral success demonstrated equal ability on the hustings. But Indira Gandhi simply made the mistake of surrounding herself with yes-Men and isolating from the political realities beyond New Delhi.
The press was censored and cowed, so all she read was the glowing accounts of herself her son and the works of her emergency regime. No one in her entourage seems to have told her anything different. She is reliably reported to have been stunned when she got out on the campaign trail and discovered the overwhelming sentiment against her and the sterlization drive in particular. By then, however, it was too late.
Like Richard Nixon and his fortress White House or Lyndon Johnson and his general who looked at reports from Vietnam through myopic eyes, Indira Gandhi had already lost touch with reality, and it cost her dearly.