I wish I could agree with Congress president Sonia Gandhi that compassion was the distinctive character of her mother-in-law, Mrs Indira Gandhi. A person with an iota of consideration for individual freedom would not have detained 100,000 people without trial as she did during the emergency in 1975. Not only that she also gagged the press and moulded the society in such a way that it had no hesitation to cross thin line between right and wrong, moral and immoral.
True, Indira Gandhi did help the people of then East Pakistan to attain freedom and probably, the liberation of Bangladesh was her finest hour and the opposition leader Atal Behari Vajpayee hailed her as Goddess Durga for having divided Pakistan. This obviated the danger of attack on India from the eastern side. However, the fact remains that the partition formula which recognized the two parts of Pakistan, East and West, was not followed.
Pakistan never forgave India for the separation although the Hamoodar Rahman Commission report on the Bangladesh war blames people in West Pakistan for treating the Bangladeshis as second class citizens. This may be the real reason why the Bangladeshis rose and freed themselves. During the birth centenary of Mrs Gandhi, which is being currently celebrated, two things will be remembered, one commendable and another condemnable. The first relates to the liberation of Bangladesh and the second is connected with the emergency.
As was probably agreed to before the interview, Rajdeep does not ask Sonia Gandhi any question about the emergency. Once he tries to bring in Sanjay Gandhi but she corrects him that the interview was on Indira Gandhi. Sonia Gandhi refuses to compare Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Indira Gandhi. She merely says that they were two different people. She refuses to elucidate even though Rajdeep repeats the question. At one time I too was on personal terms with Mrs Gandhi. I met her when the then Home Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri was a member of the Citizens Committee which Jawaharlal Nehru had constituted under her to reinvigorate the people who felt dejected after the debacle against China in 1962. Although I was a mere information officer, she had no qualms about treating people at par.
Despite our good relations, she had no compunction in detaining me during the emergency. We never met after the detention although there were feelers from her side expressing her desire to meet me. I was too bitter to entertain the idea. It was said about her that she was the only ‘man’ in the cabinet. She was assertive and clear in orders she gave. The emergency, however, was thrust upon her by Sanjay Gandhi and his cohort Siddhartha Shankar Ray, then West Bengal chief minister. Probably, she too realized that it was her only chance to wriggle herself out of the Allahabad High Court verdict which had unseated her. Indeed, it was a hard punishment for a poll indiscretion. But it was a judgment which had to be respected. She not only suspended the constitution to do away with the judgment but also introduced authoritarianism which was not a part of the democratic governance. The entire parliament caved in and the members, because of fear, endorsed the emergency without a whimper. They, otherwise, would criticize in private what she did.
Most pathetic was the role of the media. I recall that when the emergency was imposed there was anger and more than a hundred journalists assembled at the Press Club at my bidding to condemn her act. But I when I tried to pick up the threat after my detention for three months, there was hardly anyone to support me. Mrs Gandhi had created so much of fear in the minds of journalists that they were more worried about their jobs than not the concept of the freedom of the press, which they otherwise cherished. The problem with the Congress party today is that it has not gone beyond the dynastic dependence. And, somehow, the people are not enamoured of the dynasty anymore. Rahul Gandhi doesn’t sell although he passionately and honestly pursues the Congress principles laid down by his great grandfather Nehru.
Priyanka, Sonia Gandhi’s daughter, goes down well with the masses. This is probably because she reminds them of Indira Gandhi, who still enjoys pre-eminence in their thoughts. All this are true, yet the Congress has lost its relevance and the party has to work hard to make people believe that it can provide an alternative. Prime Minister Modi is still acceptable in spite of the steps like demonetisation of currency. People believe that it was all for their good even though they have to face inconvenience. It is a long haul for the Congress to push out the BJP from power. The biggest problem is that secularism is not a concept as attractive as it used to be once. The people themselves have been influenced by Hindutva thoughts. In fact, there is a soft-Hindutva in the country today. How to resell the idea of India, that is democratic and secular polity, is the arduous task which the Congress is facing today.
That is probably the reason why Sonia Gandhi talked in terms of compassion when she was giving interview at the Anand Bhavan in Allahabad. In a way she has chalked out the programme before the Congress on the eve of elections in UP. Much will depend on how the various parties fare in the state polls. That may influence the parliamentary election in 2019 and give direction to the country, including the Congress. The party’s problem is that it has not won any election so far since the advent of Modi. Even in the Maharashtra civic polls the BJP is ahead of the Congress. Gujrat has gone completely to the BJP. This should worry the secular, liberal forces. The BJP is entrenching itself and the Congress is going down.
—The writer is a veteran Indian journalist, syndicated columnist, human rights activist and author.