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How the UK visits of Rahul Gandhi and Indira Gandhi have striking similarities

Unlike his grandmother and former India PM Indira Gandhi, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi did not face demonstrators, though India’s high-pitched political battle has raised the profile of Rahul’s UK trip, which the BJP has capitalised on.

March 19, 2023 / 11:57 AM IST
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was recently in the UK and India's former prime minister Indira Gandhi was in the UK in 1978, pictured here with then Tory leader Margaret Thatcher, with whom she developed a close relationship. (Photos: Twitter)

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was recently in the UK and India's former prime minister Indira Gandhi was in the UK in 1978, pictured here with then Tory leader Margaret Thatcher, with whom she developed a close relationship. (Photos: Twitter)

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s recent visit to the United Kingdom has some striking similarities to the one his grandmother and India's former prime minister, Indira Gandhi, made 45 years ago in November 1978. Both visited the UK for just over a week, spoke with students from University of Cambridge, held meetings at the Grand Committee Room of the House of Commons and riled the ruling dispensation back in New Delhi.

Rahul Gandhi’s UK trip continues to reverberate in India’s political discourse as the BJP demands an apology from him for allegedly asking foreign powers to intervene and for defaming India. The second leg of the Parliament’s budget session is in a limbo, as the Congress maintains the controversy has been engineered to avoid a debate on Gautam Adani. But there was no such demand by the Morarji Desai-led coalition government from Indira Gandhi, who spoke about India inching towards anarchy in a combative interview to Jonathan Dimbleby, a famous TV journalist whose brother David and father Richard Dimbleby are also legendary presenters.

This interview, and her other numerous interactions with the press, during the UK visit reveal that she did not shy away from criticising New Delhi, but did draw a line when she found it necessary. When asked about India’s nuclear policy by a reporter, she replied that as a former prime minister it won’t be appropriate for her to make policy statements on such a vital issue on foreign soil.

But apart from that, Indira Gandhi, who herself faced a hostile British press due to the Emergency, went all guns blazing in taking down the Janata Party, representing a hobbled coalition which for the first time since Independence replaced Congress as the ruling party in New Delhi. In an earlier interview to the BBC in January 1978, she had said that it was the duty of the opposition to support agitations if they sought to rectify genuine grievances.

Rahul Gandhi came to the UK in the wake of his Bharat Jodo Yatra, but as a visiting fellow at University of Cambridge. He interacted with students and faculty members on a host of issues including Big Data, foreign relations and gave lectures to MBA candidates at Cambridge’s Judge Business School. Rahul Gandhi spoke about Pegasus, and Indira Gandhi similarly alleged that her home telephone was bugged and conversations taped during her trip.

Indira Gandhi too was supposed to travel to Cambridge but was unable to do so, and hence students descended in buses to Westminster. The Grand committee room at the House of Commons was agreed to be the venue (where Rahul Gandhi, too, spoke to Parliamentarians and academics), which in all likelihood was worked upon as the father of the president of the Cambridge Student Union was a member of parliament. Articulate students (comprising a big chunk of Indians) asked Indira Gandhi probing questions about the Emergency, which she continued to justify, but sought to dissociate from its excesses. Quite a few students referred to instances which directly affected them or their family members. Indira Gandhi gave the students just under half-an-hour.

Having badly lost the general election in 1977 after lifting the Emergency, Indira Gandhi salvaged some pride by winning the by-election from Chikmagalur in Karnataka just days before embarking on her UK trip. But clearly it was not good enough to take away the sins of Emergency. Reams of British newsprint had gone into criticising the suppression of civil rights, and Indira Gandhi faced hostile demonstrators in Southall and Birmingham who had assembled shouting slogans and passing leaflets against her. Claridge’s, the hotel where she stayed in central London had pro-Desai demonstrators asking her to "Go Home"!

It was not that Indira Gandhi did not have supporters. The main purpose of her visit was to attend events to mark the birth anniversary of her father Jawaharlal Nehru by Congress activists in the UK. She met then UK prime minister James Callaghan at Downing Street, and Tory leader Margaret Thatcher with whom she developed a close relationship. Former Tory PM Edward Heath called on her at Claridge’s and she addressed dozens of British parliamentarians. She also inaugurated a factory in Wales belonging to Indian industrialist Swraj Paul. All along, she berated the British Press for demonising her, but at the same time didn’t let go of any opportunity to see them.

Rahul Gandhi did not face demonstrators, but Bharat Jodo Yatra and his comments on the state of democracy in India made headlines in the press. The high-pitched political battle in India has raised the profile of Rahul Gandhi’s UK visit. On the last day of her trip, Indira Gandhi was asked whether she risked being called anti-national because of her remarks in England. It would be stretching too far, she said, adding “unless they choose to.”

In Rahul Gandhi’s case the BJP has clearly sensed political capital by choosing to make a case out of his UK trip.

Danish Khan is a London-based independent journalist and author of 'Escaped: True Stories of Indian fugitives in London'. He is researching Indian capitalism at University of Oxford.