| Congress general secretary Ambika Soni tries to break the police cordon. (Right) Activists of the BJP’s Mahila Morcha confront police. (PTI pictures)
New Delhi, Aug. 29: Indian politics emerged from the mud today, only to nurse a bloody nose and a black eye as muscle power ran riot outside the nerve-centres of the country’s two biggest parties.
A day after Jayalalithaa provided the sound bites against Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origins, a slugfest erupted on the doorsteps of the Congress president’s house and the BJP headquarters.
Both parties’ supporters — mostly women — tore at each other, pulled hair, pelted stones as well as shoes and smashed cars, capping a season of scandals that enveloped the political landscape.
The BJP insisted that activists of its women’s wing had marched to Sonia’s house to protest the murder of a Congress councillor by one of his lovers but party leaders said in private that Jayalalithaa’s outburst yesterday had provided the spark.
The Congress’ version was that at 1.30 pm, the members of the BJP’s Mahila Morcha tried to force their way into Sonia’s house with the objective of “physically harming” her.
The Mahila Morcha chief and the Maharashtra legislative council member, Kanta Nalwade, led the protest. Nalwade claimed that they wanted to protest the “attack on Indian culture”, which she said was symbolised by the recent murder of the Congress councillor.
The Congress said the stated reason for the protest does not hold water as the murder suspect, also a party councillor, has been expelled and legal proceedings are progressing against her.
As the elite Special Protection Group stood hands folded, leaders and activists from the adjoining Congress headquarters rushed to “the rescue of their president”, party leaders said.
Party general secretaries Ambika Soni, Mukul Wasnik and Oscar Fernandes were among those who dashed to 10 Janpath from the 24 Akbar Road Congress office.
They were followed by charged Youth Congress and Mahila members. Delhi police made a half-hearted effort to restrain them, but with women constables absent, the force could do little to stall them.
The police later said their contingents were engaged outside Delhi High Court where lawyers were holding a dharna and, therefore, the Congress office and Sonia’s house were not adequately fortified.
As Soni breached a feeble police cordon, someone threw a shoe at her, triggering a free-for-all. BJP spokesman Arun Jaitley later claimed that his party’s protesters were “hopelessly outnumbered by the Congress”. While the BJP contingent numbered around 70, the Congress’ was six times larger, he said.
Nalwade alleged that Wasnik — who she said had known her from Maharashtra — and Fernandes attacked her and Soni tugged at her hair. She charged them with “inflicting” heavy injuries on the head as a result of which she was hospitalised.
But the issue acquired a farcical touch two hours later. Jaitley asked his colleague Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi to call on Nalwade — who was still supposed to be in hospital.
Barely had Naqvi left the press conference hall than Nalwade and a group trooped in, clothes and hair in place. Asked to show her injury, she bowed her head and parted her hair but there was no sign of a wound.
Chapter two of the violence unfolded when irate Congressmen laid siege to the BJP office minutes before the press briefing was to start. The move was timed to get maximum media coverage.
Around 50 of them arrived in cars and two-wheelers, shouting pro-Sonia and anti-Vajpayee slogans. Some of them clambered onto a billboard of BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu and tried to pull it down.
The BJP’s youth wing activists, who were in a huddle inside, leapt to their feet and rained bricks on the Congress brigade.
As the BJP supporters were about to rush outside, the Congress activists fled, leaving a car behind. The vehicle was smashed out of shape and was about to be set on fire but BJP general secretary Sunil Shastri dissuaded the youths.
In the welter of allegations and counter-allegations that followed, a question was raised on the apparent security lapse that occurred in the heart of Delhi where the Congress and BJP offices are located.
As prohibitory orders are enforced in and around the high-security zone, there was no explanation on how a group of protesters was allowed to congregate outside Sonia’s residence.