India’s ruling Congress Party reacted with fury yesterday after police arrested senior leader Rahul Gandhi, widely tipped as a future prime minister, as he took part in protests by farmers.
The 40-year-old scion of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty and son of Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi was briefly taken into custody on Wednesday night after he joined farmers protesting against the construction of a highway.
The arrest in Uttar Pradesh has further poisoned relations between the state’s firebrand leader, Chief Minister of Uttar Preadesh Mayawati, and the Congress Party, which fiercely protects Rahul Gandhi’s image.
Rahul Gandhi, an Uttar Pradesh lawmaker, was detained because of fears a rally he planned to hold on yesterday would turn violent, the local government said. He was escorted to the capital and freed at about 2am.
“How can the state government arrest Rahul Gandhi? He is fighting for the farmers and that is not a crime,” Congress Party spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi said in New Delhi. “The state government of Uttar Pradesh is greedy for farm land. They are attacking farmers, killing people, destroying crops. We will not let this happen.”
Despite the public anger, Gandhi’s smiling face as he was driven away by police was captured on most newspaper front pages yesterday and the arrest might further burnish his leadership credentials and popularity.
“You are not recognized as a political leader in India until you are arrested,” said Sanjay Kumar, a political analyst at the Centre for the Developing Societies think tank in New Delhi. “Getting arrested is like receiving a medal for any politician. It is their dream to lead a popular movement, stage protests, garner mass support.”
The Congress Party, which still benefits from its legacy as India’s independence-era political party, plans to hold protest rallies across Uttar Pradesh against Mayawati, a populist low-caste leader who has clashed before with the Gandhi family.
Mayawati’s government had sought to restrict access to the villages of Bhatta and Parsaul on the outskirts of New Delhi where farmers and police battled at the weekend, leaving three people dead.
Rahul Gandhi, who has built his image as a champion of the poor, sneaked into the area riding pillion on a motorbike in the early hours of Wednesday. Before his arrest, he spoke with farmers and denounced the local government.
The rising political star is the great-grandson of India’s independence prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
“The Uttar Pradesh government have committed a blunder by arresting Rahul Gandhi. We will fight against Mayawati’s dictatorship,” said senior Congress Party leader Digvijay Singh, who was also arrested.
The farmers have been agitating for more than 100 days to demand higher compensation for land acquired as part of a project to build a 165km expressway between New Delhi and Agra, home to the Taj Mahal.
The Yamuna Expressway aims to reducing driving time between the two famous Indian cities to 90 minutes from four hours.
“Chief Minister Mayawati was convinced that farmers were being instigated by opposition parties, who were out to incite trouble to serve their own political objectives,” the state government’s top bureaucrat Shashank Shekhar Singh told reporters.
He said most farmers had collected compensation, but “a handful, guided by vested political interests and encouraged by political parties, were creating trouble.”
Land acquisition for roads, factories or other development is a controversial issue across India.
An editorial in the Hindu newspaper yesterday said that land acquisition has often been exploited by opposition parties ahead of local elections.
“With just a year left before the assembly election, the opposition obviously wants to trip up Chief Minister Mayawati on the farmers issue, denting her image as a champion of social justice,” it said.