Congress must learn from Indira Gandhi when she was arrested

Congress leaders must be ready to face arrests, assaults by the police, bulldozers, denial of permission to hold rallies and hounding by central agencies. They must also suffer what the people do

Congress must learn from Indira Gandhi when she was arrested

Zafar Agha

It was the summer of 1978. I was vacationing in Bombay after my exam at Allahabad University. I was strolling towards Fort Road from VT to reach Jahangir Art gallery when I noticed a sudden commotion. Shops were pulling down their shutters and street vendors were hurriedly leaving with whatever they were displaying for sale. It must be a routine raid by the municipality against illegal vendors, I reflected. But then I noticed that pedestrians too seemed to be in a hurry to leave. They appeared to be nervous. I was still wondering why when two-three hundred young men appeared while shouting Indira Gandhi zindabad. Long live Indira Gandhi.

I was taken aback. Post-Emergency, Indira Gandhi had few takers in large parts of northern and western India. Her electoral defeat in 1977 had left her isolated and the Shah Commission was hearing charges against her. Yet, here in Bombay, people were raising slogans in her favour. It was curious. I tried to ask the youngsters what the occasion was and someone shouted back, “Don’t you know Indira Gandhi has been arrested!” I was stunned for a moment. It took time to process that a former prime Minister had been arrested. I was also surprised at the surge of sympathy I felt for her.

Barely a year ago, upset with the Emergency, I had vehemently opposed Indira Gandhi in the 1977 Lok Sabha election. My generation in North India had turned against her and the Congress. But the news of her arrest made me uneasy and I was surprised at the sympathy I felt for her.

The arrest proved to be a turning point. There was no looking back for her as large number of people rallied round her and opposed her arrest. I was not alone but there were millions who had voted her out felt the same way. They rallied round her because they believed the Janata Party government was settling scores with her and was harassing and humiliating a former PM on the basis of flimsy depositions.

When on Monday this week I saw Rahul Gandhi marching to the ED office on my TV screen, my thoughts went back to that afternoon in Bombay. It was the Indira Gandhi moment for the Congress Party once again, I couldn’t help thinking.

The similarities between then and now are evident. The Congress Party is out of favour as it was post-Emergency. Its leaders were adrift. But hounding Indira Gandhi and taking her to Tihar jail in Delhi galvanised the party and Congress supporters.

Power drunk Modi government is also on the same course now. CBI and ED have become instruments to harass anyone who stands up to the government. From a journalist to the senior leaders of most opposition parties are sought to be intimidated by the central agencies. It serves the purpose of creating the impression that the leaders are tainted and demoralise their supporters. It also helps in diverting attention from the Government’s omissions and commissions. The pliant mainstream media, now known as the Godi media, obligingly amplify the message.

But enough is enough. People have watched the Government going berserk against people and civil society and its brazen attempts to silence critics and dissenters. It is hardly confined to the Congress or the Gandhis. But the Gandhis are not like everybody else either. From Jawahar Lal Nehru to Sonia Gandhi, all of them have changed peoples’ lives’ for the better. Some family members have sacrificed their own lives for what they believed was in national interest. Even those who no longer vote for the Congress can still see through the attempts and recall the obvious contributions made by the Congress and its leaders. It is a folly to believe all of them can be fooled all the time.

However, hitting the street on a single day by senior Congress leaders will not be enough to turn the tide. They need to learn from Indira Gandhi, who hit the streets in 1978 after her arrest and never rested till she again won the election in 1980.

She hardly spent any time in the national capital. Indira Gandhi had no time for Parliament either. After winning a Lok Sabha seat from Chikmagalur in a byelection, she attended Parliament just for day. She knew that success of opposition politics lay outside on the streets and with the people. She was on the streets throughout the period she was out of power. That’s what made people forget emergency excesses and brought Congress Party back to power under her leadership in 1980.

Both Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi need to emulate the same practice and be with the people like Indira Gandhi used to be in opposition. It is undoubtedly tougher and all the more difficult in Modi Raj, which disallows peaceful marches and sit-ins. Even Narendra Modi’s fan club is aware of his vindictive nature; and nobody can predict his actions if he senses a loss in support or popularity.

But then there are no short cuts to power and Congress leaders will have to brace for more indignities, longer hours under the Sun and be ready to face canes and lathis of the police and the bulldozers. What happens to the people cannot escape those who seek to represent the people.

(The writer is Editor-in-Chief, National Herald)

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