What Rahul Gandhi & Congress can learn from Indira Gandhi’s Belchi elephant ride in 1977

What Rahul Gandhi & Congress can learn from Indira Gandhi’s Belchi elephant ride in 1977

The Belchi visit at once changed the perception about the Gandhi family and the Congress.

Rahul Gandhi at a press conference | Photo: Manisha Mondal | ThePrint

Rahul Gandhi at a press conference | File photo: Manisha Mondal | ThePrint

Rahul Gandhi gets a barrage of advice every day, urging him to do several thousands of things to improve the Congress party. There is indeed a vast industry that is churning out such advisers. Their advice or suggestions are largely well-meaning, with some showing genuine affection for the party and the Nehru-Gandhi family.

They give suggestions on how to build the party network or how he should dress. Or, that he must marry and settle in life, and/or lead the party like his grandmother did.

The fifth generation of the Nehru-Gandhi family, Rahul Gandhi carries the burden of expectations, and is constantly compared with Jawaharlal Nehru or Indira Gandhi or Rajiv Gandhi. Anybody would collapse under the weight of such comparisons.

I would rather not advice him, as if he has no mind of his own. However, it is necessary to take a look at the party, which is facing a deep existential crisis.

The Congress is trapped in its own image of a past, which was turbulent but glorious. It now faces the challenge of coming out of that trap. And this is possible only by winning the confidence of the people again.

Also read: Even if you want to quit, quell dissent in party first: Veerappa Moily to Rahul Gandhi

Now, this may seem like an empty statement because most Congress workers and leaders are disconnected from their constituencies and some have turned into loose cannons. Many of them now suffer from smugness and complacency.

Lessons from the past

Jawaharlal Nehru had pulled the Congress out of a similar morass by introducing the Kamaraj Plan. It made the party fat-free for a while. The plan had forced ministers to resign and go back to their constituencies and work among the people.

But soon, the ‘old guard’ got reorganised and took over the reins of the party. Indira Gandhi, after the big setback in the 1967 elections, (the Congress lost in eight states and got a thin majority in the Lok Sabha), confronted the status-quoists and reactionaries within the party. This led to a split in the party, with the ‘old guard’ or the ‘syndicate’ eventually being reduced to irrelevance.

Even Rajiv Gandhi had publicly spoken against the “broker” culture and vowed to rid the organisation of such people.

But in the last 20 years, the Congress leadership has not taken any steps to cut the flab and make the party fighting-fit despite a gradual decline in its vote and seat share. In fact, the Congress-led UPA’s 2009 victory made the party leaders all the more complacent.

In this context, it would be interesting to look at how the Congress bounced back from extremely hopeless situations in the past.

Also read: Should Rahul Gandhi get rid of Leftist aides or is it still not enough to revive Congress?

Indira Gandhi & Belchi comeback

Today, nobody would remember a tiny, nondescript village called Belchi in Patna district of Bihar. But in August 1977, it made headlines when Indira Gandhi decided to visit the village. The Belchi visit changed the course of Indian politics and the fortunes of the Congress party.

The village was inaccessible but Indira Gandhi, undaunted, walked through slush. A local villager saw her determination and brought an elephant. She climbed on the elephant and finally reached the village after a nearly four-hour journey. She again undertook the same trek to reach Patna airport.

What was the tearing hurry to visit this remote village in Bihar?

A few weeks ago, in a flare-up, eleven people, including eight Dalits and three from other deprived communities, were brutally killed allegedly by upper caste landlords.

The detailed news regarding the tragedy had reached other parts of the country rather late.

There was no hyper-active media, no private TV channels, and no social media back then. But when Indira Gandhi came to know about this act of violence against ‘Harijans’, she decided to personally meet the families of those killed.

Except for some Patna-based reporters and a couple of Delhi journalists with local photographers, no one could undertake the adventurous trek to Belchi.

The visit created a sensation and grabbed headlines. This was possibly the first time Indira Gandhi had stepped out of her house to meet people following the Congress’ disastrous defeat in the 1977 Lok Sabha elections in March. Both Indira and her son Sanjay lost from their home constituencies of Rae Bareli and Amethi.

After the Congress’ defeat, which came on the back of public outrage against Emergency, the general consensus was that the country had become ‘Congress and dynasty-mukt’.

And yet five months later, there was this rousing welcome for Indira Gandhi, all the way from the Patna airport to Belchi.

The Belchi visit at once changed the perception about the Gandhi family and the Congress. After Belchi, Indira Gandhi just marched from one place to another, emerging as a ‘saviour’.

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The Congress soon realised that what was missing during the Emergency years was mass connect. The Janata Party had filled that vacuum.

Forty-two years later, it is not enough for only Rahul Gandhi to build a ‘connection’ with the people. It is the Congress party, which really needs to see itself as the inheritor of the Nehru-Gandhi legacy. The party and its leaders need to connect with their base and inspire confidence among the supporters.

The author is a former editor and Congress member of Rajya Sabha. Views are personal.