Did Rahul Gandhi Choose the Wrong Time to Bring Up Emergency Era?

Like Rahul Gandhi’s Emergency remark, the failure to push through reforms won’t shore-up Congress’s poll prospects.

5 min read
File image of Rahul Gandhi used for representational purposes.

Rahul Gandhi once again is proving himself to be an unconventional politician. At a time when five crucial state assembly polls of Assam, Bengal, Kerala, Puducherry and Tamil Nadu are on, and a hawkish group of party dissenters are trying to queer the pitch for him, Rahul has chosen to give a candid interview to renowned economist Kaushik Basu.

Clips of his interaction are available on social media and Congress party official handles. Rahul seems to be enjoying the attention over his assertion that the imposition of the Emergency by his grandmother Indira Gandhi was wrong. In the video, Rahul can be seen laughing while telling Basu: “You will see...there will be something that I've said that will be twisted out of context. It'll be all over the Indian newspapers...and they'll run it. And that's just the way it is. But I'm okay with that.”

The former chief economic advisor to the Government of India and a known critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s economic policies, is seen smiling too.

Not the Best Time for Rahul Gandhi to Have Brought Up Emergency Era

Other than the G-23 or the group of dissenters, a number of Congress leaders loyal to the Gandhis, have problems with Rahul’s articulation and timing. According to them, election time is a short window available to enhance a party's poll prospects where every moment should be utilised to maximise gains.

The reference to the Emergency, they insist, is unlikely to bring any political dividends. Rather, in states like Kerala and Bengal, any reminder of Emergency era excesses is likely to put off voters, particularly the senior citizens.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a senior party leader said that Indira, after winning the 1980 verdict, had herself regretted imposing the emergency. The 21-month long emergency between June 1975-to March 1977 had seen the curtailment of civil liberties, media censorship, and the arrest of over 1,00,000 political activists.

After journalist Kuldeep Nayyar was arrested, both Indira and Rahul’s uncle Sanjay Gandhi had earned a bad name and adverse publicity at home and abroad.


Is Priyanka Gandhi the ‘More Effective’ Sibling?

From the photographs and videos, Rahul Gandhi seems to be enjoying electioneering in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry. Relaxed and confident, he is often seen cracking jokes, deep sea diving, doing push-ups, drinking tea at the roadside and intermingling with ease. The outcome of the Kerala assembly polls in particular, has a serious bearing on Rahul who is a member of the Lok Sabha from Wayanad. There is a growing view within the Congress that the party’s failure to wrest Kerala from the LDF would make Rahul’s return as the 87th president of the AICC a much more complex and daunting task.

In comparison, Priyanka Gandhi, campaigning in Assam, is seen as far more effective, purposeful and focussed.

Pictures of her picking tea at a tea garden, rushing from one public meeting to another and her sharp speeches are making her far more business-like than Rahul. Theodore Roosevelt had described comparison as the “thief of joy”, but earthly Congressmen say that they cannot help but compare the two Gandhi siblings.


Congress’s Internal Squabble and the Key to the Inside Scoop

Rahul’s remark on how his own Congress party had derailed the inner party democracy has not gone down well too. Speaking to Kaushik Basu who is currently with Cornell University, Rahul Gandhi said: “I am the person who pushed elections in youth organisations and student organisations, and got a serious beating in the press for that. I was literally crucified for doing elections. I was attacked by my own party people.”

Like the Emergency remark, the failure to push through reforms or inner party democracy in the NSUI or Youth Congress is unlikely to shore-up the party’s electoral prospects.

Moreover, Rahul’s lament raises several questions. After all, he was general secretary while Sonia Gandhi was AICC chief when Rahul had taken it upon himself to bring about inner party democracy in the Congress. Did Sonia Gandhi discourage him? Or was it late Ahmed Patel and the party’s old guard that ganged up against him?

The key to this internal squabble is in the details — whether Rahul wrote letters, raised the issue at the CWC or simply backtracked.


What Shrunk the Congress’s Base?

Rahul had hired a retired election commissioner, JM Lyngdoh, to design processes and implement policies to ensure that there were free internal elections within the party and that all initiatives and representatives were backed by elected representatives. Like Rajiv's Mumbai speech of 1985, Rahul was aiming at a paradigm shift in India’s politics, which were steeped in caste equations and corruption.

Initially, Rahul’s push for inner party democracy and transparency was not quite picture perfect. For one, it appeared to be shrinking the Congress’s base.

In the membership drive that was conducted as part of the run-up to the party's organisational polls, Rahul's insistence that all members should attach their photographs to the membership form posed a problem. Many state party leaders said that ‘genuine’ party members, such as farm workers, day labourers and burqa-clad Muslim women, lacked the time and inclination to get themselves photographed.

Team Rahul had however, given a different story. They said the insistence on photographs had eliminated the possibility of showing ‘bogus’ members. The Congress membership form of 2010 asked for each member's photo, thumb impression, residential address and two references.


Congress’s Tryst With ‘Dynastic’ Label

In 2012, Rahul had given credit to Indira Gandhi for breaking up Pakistan. Flexing his muscle, he had told voters in Badaun in Uttar Pradesh: “I belong to the family which has never moved backwards, which has never gone back on his words. You know that when any member of my family has decided to do anything, he does it. Be it the freedom struggle, the division of Pakistan or taking India to the 21st century.”

Pakistan was quick to say that Rahul’s statement proved that Indira Gandhi had interfered in its affairs.

The then BJP spokesman Prakash Javadekar too had said that Rahul’s comments had reflected the Gandhi family's dynastic mentality. “If you are taking credit for Bangladesh, you will also have to take the blame for India's partition. You can't forget this. Everyone from Bose to Savarkar fought against the British, but to just give credit to one family only shows dynastic politics,” he said.

(Rasheed Kidwai is the author of ‘24, Akbar Road, Ballot’ and ‘Sonia: a Biography’. He is a Visiting Fellow at the ORF. He tweets at @rasheedkidwai. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Stay Updated

Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.

Join over 120,000 subscribers!