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Powers of Emergency: The Importance of Striking a Balance Between Freedom and Responsibility

Powers of Emergency: The Importance of Striking a Balance Between Freedom and Responsibility

  • My father taught me about the importance of the fine balance between the use and misuse of emergency powers of an executive, and how overreaching ambition can empower autocratic impulses.

A legislator is usually busy in the summer, celebrating America’s independence at Fourth of July parades, while taking the time to connect with constituents and building their campaign war chest. Surprisingly, we were called back to Lansing in mid-July — not to vote on appropriations for key services like police or public libraries, to address vaccine hesitancy and its impact on public health, or any critical legislation. We came back at the behest of the Republican majority on a purely partisan issue: to repeal a Michigan law that gives emergency powers to the Governor — currently a Democrat.

This law enacted in 1945 gave governors broad powers to declare an emergency and promulgate rules to “protect life and property or to bring the emergency situation within the affected area under control.” It could have been clarified or improved but was voided by the legislature instead. The Emergency Powers of Governor Act provided Gov. Gretchen Whitmer the ability to enact rules that enabled Michiganders to weather the pandemic in 2020. Early in the pandemic, she was able to act quickly to protect public health and set us on a road to economic recovery. Our state’s economic recovery is now the second strongest in the nation, with an unemployment rate a full point lower than the national average and bond ratings that showcase our post-pandemic fiscal stability.

Michigan’s Republican-led legislature didn’t provide any solutions on how to handle the pandemic. Instead, a ballot committee with Republican connections spent millions of dollars to circulate petitions and collect signatures to repeal the 1945 emergency powers law. Our latest actions in the House and Senate don’t even allow the state’s 10 million residents to weigh in on what 4.6% of our population wanted on the ballot. We, as a legislative body, simply repealed executive authority without thinking of what the people we represent wanted. The Unlock Michigan committee is still concerned about constitutional liberties and continues its attempts to dismantle executive authority.

Unsettled by the partisan polarization, I called my father to unpack my thoughts around emergency powers. I knew he would have sage advice: I had called him with my agitation in 2017 about the confirmation of Betsy Devos as U.S. Secretary of Education — and it was his reminder that all politics is local that led me to really consider running for office, where I can actually impact public education, a civic issue that I am passionate about.

In the mid-70s, I was a child in American public schools learning about democracy. My father, a grad student at SUNY Stony Brook, had heated discussions with other Indian foreign students about what was happening “back home” — conversations that occur in many immigrant households even today. In 1975, India’s Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, declared a state of Emergency in India. I could sense how agitated he was, given that Indira Gandhi had gotten near-absolute control of her political party (the Congress party). With a huge majority in Parliament, she finally took over the government with the declaration of a state of Emergency with support from India’s President, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. Freedom fighters who sought India’s independence from British colonial rule, like Jayaprakash Narayan and Morarji Desai, and many other champions for democracy demonstrated against what was happening: the Prime Minister’s rule by executive decree, suspension of civil liberties, cancellation of elections, a widespread compulsory mass sterilization program, and so much more. Nannagaru even wrote a long letter to the New York Times, trying to raise awareness about India’s and Indira’s complex political history.

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During our conversation about my “special” trip to Lansing, we recalled our discussions about Rohinton Mistry’s book, A Fine Balance, an Oprah’s Book Club selection that I read years ago. The book had given me a new understanding of my father’s passion for his country and our shared desire for a government that values its people. We recognized yet again, that indeed, there is a fine balance between the use and misuse of emergency powers of an executive, how overreaching ambition can empower autocratic impulses, and the responsibility that comes with freedom. As Nelson Mandela once said, “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

Padma Kuppa is Democratic State Representative for Michigan’s 41st House District and has been just re-elected for a second term. A mother, an engineer from NIT Warangal, and an automotive and IT professional for over 2 decades, and a civic and interfaith leader for years, she is the first Indian immigrant and Hindu in the Michigan state legislature. You can reach her at Learn more at or

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The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of American Kahani.
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