Why the cry of political vendetta worked for Indira Gandhi – but won’t for Sonia

Why the cry of political vendetta worked for Indira Gandhi – but won't for Sonia
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It seems to have become a habit of the Congress to dig into its rich past for overcoming the challenges of the present. Perhaps this is what influenced Congress president Sonia Gandhi to respond aggressively to the judicial order asking her and Rahul Gandhi to make a personal appearance in the court in the National Herald case. “I am the daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi. I am not scared of anyone,” Sonia said.

These two sentences of hers were presumably aimed at rekindling the memory of the arrests her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, was subjected to between Oct 1977 and Dec 1978. Believing in the dictum that a “crisis is also an opportunity”, Indira exploited her two brief spells in jail to script a political comeback and toss the fractious Janata Party, under the umbrella of which several outfits had come together, out of power.

It almost seems Sonia wants a replay of history, believing a spin to the National Herald will have people believe that the Narendra Modi government has launched a campaign of political vendetta against the Congress and the Gandhis. Such a perception could then be exploited to generate sympathy for the Congress, as Indira remarkably did during the two years she was out of power. A sympathy wave, history shows, can become a tail-wind for political careers to soar.

A flashback

Might not the Gandhis be getting their history, and political calculations, woefully wrong? But first, the background to why Indira was arrested two times between 1977 and 1978.

At 5 pm, on Oct 3, 1977, Sonia is said to have been preparing tea for her mother-in-law when CBI officials descended on their residence to arrest Indira. “Handcuff me,” Indira told them.

The charges levelled against her were two. She was accused of pressuring two companies to supply 104 jeeps which were pressed into election campaigns earlier. The second charge alleged she had misused her prime ministerial power for sanctioning an oil drilling contract to a French company, Service de Petroles, even though its bid was higher in comparison to that of an American entrepreneur.

Sonia was witness to the fuss Indira raised, preventing the officers from taking her into custody till the time Congress activists and the media had gathered at her residence. However, on Oct 4, she was released on the issue of jurisdiction – the court deemed the police had erred in taking her outside Delhi, into Haryana, where she had been lodged for the night. The charges were thought of as baseless.

Indira was again arrested in December 1978, a little more than a month after she had won a Lok Sabha by-election from Chikmagalur, Karnataka. On Nov 18, 1977, the Lok Sabha adopted a motion referring to the Committee of Privilege whether or not Indira and two others were guilty of intimidating and obstructing officials from gathering material for answering a question asked in the Lok Sabha. The Committee ruled that Indira had indeed committed a breach of privilege, but left it to the House to decide on the punishment.

On Dec 19, 1978, the Lok Sabha passed a motion declaring that Indira should be jailed till the prorogation of the House, besides being expelled from it. She left for Tihar Jail the same evening, waving to the crowd which had gathered at Parliament. Her arrest triggered violent incidents in the country, culminating in two Congress activists hijacking an Indian Airlines plane with a toy gun. She remained in Tihar for seven days, during which her meals were taken there by Sonia.

Going for broke

It seems the ringside view she had of the events of 1977-1978 has led Sonia to sniff in the National Herald case the whiff of political vendetta similar to what the Janata Party indulged in. More importantly, she perhaps sees it as an opportunity to enact the political drama Indira did so tellingly.

On one occasion at least, Sonia had shown a penchant for Indira’s adversarial, go-for-broke style of politics. Earlier this year, she led Congress leaders in a march to the residence of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The march was undertaken to express solidarity with Singh, who had then been asked to personally appear in the coal scam case in the trial court. However, the court summon to Singh was appealed against in the Supreme Court, which struck it down.

The Gandhis have now chosen to not follow the path Singh took, instead preferring to copy the style Indira adopted, regardless of the context of 1977-78 differing from that of 2015.

In 1977 the Shah Commission of Inquiry had been instituted to probe the excesses the Indira regime was accused of committing during the Emergency. Instead of waiting for the Commission’s report, the Janata government decided, rather unwisely, to cut to the chase.

There was also the fact of then Home Minister Charan Singh being spurred to take action against her in the hope of stealing the thunder from Prime Minister Morarji Desai and emerging a hero. It was assumed the nation would back the move as the Congress, only months before, had been routed in the elections and even Indira had lost from Rae Bareilly. Charan Singh short-circuited the process, not even caring to have his officials gather evidence to support the two charges levelled against her in Oct 1977.

Her release on Oct 4 helped the Congress to craft the narrative that the Janata government was conjuring cases only out of political vendetta. It was one thing to accuse Indira of authoritarianism, quite another to claim she was corrupt.

As for her arrest in 1978, the nation was already disappointed at the inability of the Janata Party leaders to pull together. Competition had turned into bitter fights and squabbles. By contrast, Indira had captivated the nation by riding on an elephant through slush to reach Belchi, where Dalits (then called Harijans) had been massacred. Her rising popularity became evident in her handsome victory in the by-election in November 1978.

This was precisely why the decision to jail her was construed as an attempt by her political rivals to thwart her comeback. To the nation, it seemed the government was defying the wishes of the people to see her return to Parliament.

2015 isn’t 1977

These parallels can’t be found in the National Herald case. When Subramanian Swamy first questioned the legality of the transactions in the National Herald case, the party in 2012 responded, “It is for those who make allegations to prove their charges.” Now that the case is in the court, the Gandhis can scarcely scream political vendetta.

The action against them has not emanated from the government, regardless of the speculation that the state machinery has been, or will be, pressed into assisting Swamy. This speculation had been there at the time the United Progressive Alliance was in power, prompting pundits to claim certain political parties supported the Congress on contentious issues only because their leaders had been threatened with Central Bureau of Investigation action.

When Indira Gandhi claimed she was being hounded by political rivals, she wasn’t in power, just as Sonia and Rahul are not. Yet the Congress in 1977-78 represented the other pole of Indian politics. Despite the Janata Party sweeping the North, the Congress largely retained the South. Even in the North, the voters were divided between those who voted for it in the 1977 elections and those who voted for the Janata Party.

There thus existed a large base of voters who were opposed to the Janata Party. For them, the cry of political vendetta had a resonance because their support to the Congress was blindly partisan, an aspect of their political habit. Whether or not the charges against Indira were true was irrelevant for them. What mattered to Congress supporters was that Indira was harnessing the tail-wind to enhance the party’s fortunes.

The tail-wind was the popular disappointment with the Janata Party. Among its supporters there were many who had for the first time not cast their vote for the Congress; their alienation from it did not run deep. Other than the Congress and Indira Gandhi, they had no other entity or personality in whom they could repose their political faith, given that the Janata experiment seemed an abject failure.

They believed the government was resorting to political vendetta against Indira because they were inclined to believing the worst of the Janata Party. For them, the jailing of Indira in 1978 was yet another evidence of the Janata Party’s pettiness, its inability to rule.

This isn’t the political situation in 2015. The Congress has shrunk, its numbers in the Lok Sabha are below 50, and it is in power in just a few states. The BJP this year lost in Delhi and Bihar, but even diehard Congress supporters won’t credit that to the efforts of their own party. Bihar and Delhi don’t constitute sufficient evidence to assume the BJP’s slide is irreversible. It definitely isn’t evidence of a Congress comeback. In fact, in Delhi, the support base of the Congress has been wiped out.

The relatively smaller pool of Congress loyalists today in comparison to what it had in 1977-78 implies it lacks the critical mass of partisans ever willing to believe whatever their leaders say, more so when there do exist doubts about the morality of transactions in the National Herald case. Indira Gandhi’s cry of political vendetta found an echo chamber in the hearts of her legion of supporters. Today, the Gandhis don’t have that advantage. In projecting themselves as victims, the Gandhis can’t hope to revive the party. They should rather revive the party for people to believe in their claim of being hounded.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.