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Down but not out

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By TT Bureau
  • Published 10.07.11

The Congress’s first defeat since Independence resulted in a mass exodus from the party. But the fighter in Indira was far from disturbed. Some senior party leaders, including the then Congress president, K. Brahmananda Reddy, on 1 January 1978 announced that Indira had been expelled from the party. Reddy had the support of many powerful leaders such as Y.B. Chavan, Vasant Dada Patil and Swaran Singh. D.K. Barooah, who had coined the slogan, ‘Indira is India, India is Indira’, was nowhere to be seen...

In the absence of V.C. Shukla, Bansi Lal, Ambika Soni, Karan Singh and D.K. Barooah, a somewhat lonely Indira found a new band of loyalists — Buta Singh, A.P. Sharma, G.K. Moopanar, Syed Mir Qasim, Maragatham Chandrasekhar and Budh Priya Maurya, all members of the Congress Working Committee. They marched to Reddy to challenge Indira’s expulsion. Buta, who was formerly with the Akali Dal, spoke harshly to Reddy, demanding to know how Nehru’s daughter could be expelled from the Congress. ‘She is the Congress,’ Buta said, before walking out of Reddy’s residence. His next destination was 12 Willingdon Crescent, where a stoic Indira heard him narrate the sequence of events. However the moment Buta proudly told Indira how he had showed Reddy ‘his place’, she chided him for being impolite. ‘After all, he is the Congress president,’ she told him.

It was a battle of survival for the Congress and Indira’s band of loyalists. Quickly, Buta, Sharma, Maurya, Moopanar, Mir Qasim and several others left on a nationwide tour to obtain the signatures of the 700-odd members of the AICC. They found majority support in Lucknow, Jaipur, Patna, Bhopal, Mumbai, Jammu, Srinagar, Hyderabad, Chennai, Kolkata, Thiruvananthapuram, Bangalore and other state capitals.

A convention was organised at Malvankar Hall in New Delhi on 2 January 1978, at which Indira announced that she was floating her own party, the Congress (I). Perhaps Buta’s assertion before Reddy that Nehru’s daughter was ‘the Congress’ was still ringing in her ears.

The split cost Indira dearly. Apart from losing the support of 76 of the 153 members of the Lok Sabha, her new party was homeless. It had also lost control of the party symbol of a cow and her calf. Buta Singh, who was now the AICC general secretary, and had a room at 24 Akbar Road, petitioned the Election Commission, seeking a hold over the election symbol.

The commission however ‘froze’ the symbol in the face of objections from the rival Congress, led by Swaran Singh and K. Brahmananda Reddy.

Indira was out in Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh with P.V. Narasimha Rao when Buta was asked by the Election Commission to pick an election symbol; the choices were an elephant, a bicycle and an open palm. Buta was not sure which symbol he should choose, so he booked a trunk call to seek Indira’s approval. The line was not very clear or perhaps Buta’s Hindi pronunciation was so thick that Indira kept hearing haathi (elephant), instead of haath (hand). She kept saying no to it even as Buta kept trying to explain that it was not the elephant, but the open palm symbol that he was advising her to pick. The comedy of errors continued till an exasperated Indira handed the telephone over to Rao. In a matter of seconds, Rao, master of more than a dozen Indian and foreign languages, understood what Buta was trying to convey. He shouted, ‘Buta Singhji, panja kahiye, panja.’ Indira was relieved and took the receiver and said, ‘Haan, haan, panja theek rahega (Yes, yes, the open palm symbol will be appropriate).’

Initially, the hand symbol was ridiculed. Some Congressmen felt that it would remind voters of traffic policemen, but deep within her Indira and her key associates were pleased because earlier critics had compared the Congress’s cow and calf symbol to Indira and her son, Sanjay.

Before shifting to 24 Akbar Road, the Congress had tried to set up its office at the residences of various party leaders, but it could never get the ‘right ambience’. For a few days before moving to 24 Akbar Road, Buta, Sharma and the others camped at Maragatham’s house, 3 Janpath, and then at the residence of Pandit Kamalapati Tripathi. Tripathi, a devout Hindu from Benaras, was both accommodating and generous, but for Buta and the other AICC office-bearers the hours-long daily hawan posed a hindrance. Apart from making a daily excuse for skipping the religious ritual, A.P. Sharma, himself a Brahmin, said he could never bring himself to work in a ‘temple-like atmosphere’.

Buta then zeroed in on G. Venkatswamy, a Lok Sabha MP from Andhra Pradesh, who lived alone at 24 Akbar Road. Venkatswamy’s bachelor residence was ‘open house’ for many Youth Congress leaders, who would visit 10 Janpath, but use 24 Akbar Road for their siestas and other recreational activities.

H.K.L. Bhagat, an influential leader from Delhi, brought a wooden board that read ‘All India Congress Committee (Indira)’ to be put up at the entrance. Shoban Singh was put in charge of the office. His charter of duties encompassed working as office attendant, driver, cook and security in charge.

When Venkatswamy returned from Andhra, he was pleased to see the party office board adorning his residence. He told Buta, ‘Aapne achha kiya. Yeh sab kuchh Indiraji ka diya hua hai. Yeh sab unka hi hai (I am glad you did this. All this has been given by Indiraji. It all belongs to her).’

Out of power, the party was beginning to feel the lack of funds. Once again, Buta’s innovative thinking helped. As a matter of practice, all visiting party leaders were requested to ‘donate’ money to the new party. The South Indian MPs and leaders always obliged with a hundred rupees and more. Those from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar gave somewhat more stringently — 10 or 20 rupees — but Buta accepted all the donations with humility and grace.

Buta also took the lead in organising meals when visiting party members were hungry. If Buta was short of cash, he would quietly leave for Gurudwara Bangla Saheb and bring langar, the free community food served there. For the hungry Congress members, the simple daal, roti and halwa seemed truly a godsend.

Often, Buta would walk across the road to 2 Motilal Nehru Marg, the residence of Khurshid Alam Khan, son-in-law of former president, Dr Zakir Hussain and father of Salman Khurshid, who later served as AICC office bearer at 24 Akbar Road. This mild-mannered, suave, management graduate from Pennsylvania University and his family were always generous and willing to help Buta. Normally they had elaborate, non-vegetarian meals, replete with kebabs, stews and shorbas, but they would add vegetables freshly grown in their kitchen garden to cater to the vegetarians.

Buta, Sharma, Maurya and Antulay received no salary from the party. In fact, the Congress has no tradition of paying for work. Even when Sonia and Rahul Gandhi introduced a corporate culture in the party and economist Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh initiated multisectoral reforms, the concept of ‘work and pay’ never occurred to them. During the Rajiv era, AICC general secretaries started getting a paltry Rs 3,000 as ‘fuel charges’, which, by 2010, rose to Rs 9,000 per month...

When biographer Dom Moraes went to see Indira after her 1977 defeat, he found her to have shrunk physically, but she spoke to him cheerfully enough, saying, ‘I feel as though an enormous weight has been lifted off my shoulders.’ But when party colleague Aruna Asaf Ali tried to cheer her up, saying the people would come back to the Congress, Indira queried impatiently, ‘When?’