As the situation in Lakhimpur Kheri intensifies, Priyanka Gandhi has been placed under house arrest in the nearby Sitapur district. Congress leaders are comparing her arrest to that of her grandmother, Indira Gandhi’s arrest in 1977. We explore what happened through an excerpt from ‘Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister’ by Sagarika Ghose.
In October 1977 Indira Gandhi was arrested. The case that was to be brought against her concerned her use of government jeeps during her elections.
Her arrest became excellent theatre. When the police arrived at her home, she made sure she looked the part. Keeping the police waiting for five hours, she took her time to change into a perfectly ironed stark white sari. Arrest and jail had been a family occupation and Indira Gandhi knew how important it was to do it right. In those five hours, calls were made from her home summoning her supporters and the press. Suitably attired in the dress of a martyr, she marched out of the door, insisting on being handcuffed. She was photographed by the press and garlanded by the crowd which had gathered by now. She then entered the police van with studied dignity and the police convoy took off to incarcerate her in the Badhkal Lake guest house in Haryana. Her family and lawyers followed in cars.
As the convoy approached the Haryana border, it was held up at a level crossing while a train rolled past. Indira Gandhi gracefully stepped out from the police van and took up position on a roadside culvert surrounded by a crowd of supporters. Her lawyers now got into an argument with the police, refusing to let them take her out of Delhi without a court warrant. An impassive Indira, head demurely covered, resignedly sat on the culvert, in no hurry to move. ‘The government which fears [political opponents] cannot govern the country,’ she declared dramatically to reporters, without the faintest hint of irony. ‘[They are trying to] wreck my nerves. My nerves are as strong as they had always been.’When reporters asked what the charges against her were, she replied dismissively and with ‘an air of disgust’, ‘some corruption charges in connection with jeeps, I think’.
The police attempt to make a dash for Haryana with a captive Indira in their net had been laughably overeager. Faced with strong arguments from her lawyers, the police had to abandon their plan and had no option but to bring her back to Police Lines in Delhi where policemen dutifully saluted her and led her into her cell. She refused to eat anything and soon fell into deep sleep, waking up the next morning fresh and rested. She had reason to feel refreshed. Although the police thought they had a foolproof case, the magistrate tossed it out saying there were no grounds for the charges. Indira was immediately released, and she gained instant sympathy and publicity. ‘Even Mummy could not have thought out a better scenario,’ exulted Rajiv to a foreign correspondent. The bungled arrest and Indira’s conduct through it showed how adept she was in creating political capital out of her enemies’ helpless anger. While they flailed about, she manipulated them to perfection. Pranab Mukherjee quotes a joke from the time: ‘Look at the competence of this government. A woman who had put a few hundred leaders in jail for nineteen months could not be put behind bars by them for nineteen hours.’ Faced with the open show of hostility from the Janata government, she readied for battle.
She was back on the front pages, her arrest showing how pettily anxious the government was to get her; the flimsy charges only bolstered the impression that small-minded men had launched a dirty war against a woman who had once defeated them in elections. ‘There is a distinction between justice and revenge,’ noted the Financial Times.
Continue reading about Indira Gandhi and how she changed the country forever in ‘‘Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister’, which will be free as part of #ReadersChoice on 9th October 2021.