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Ambika Soni, who declined offer to become Punjab CM, was Sanjay Gandhi’s aide during Emergency, oversaw his programmes including compulsory sterilisation

Ambika Soni and others oversaw implementation of Sanjay Gandhi's 5-point programme, including demolition of slums/ beautification, adult literacy, abolition of dowry, caste system and contentious family planning

Amidst the ongoing political crisis in Punjab, following the resignation of Captain Amarinder Singh, veteran Congress leader Ambika Soni rejected the proposal to become the new Chief Minister before Charanjit Singh Channi was named as the next CM.

As per reports, Ambika Soni said that the Chief Ministerial position must be occupied by a leader from the Sikh community only. She spoke to Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and even Navjot Singh Sidhu about the matter but declined the offer to become the State CM. While emphasising the need to ‘follow her inner voice’, the Congress leader said that she was not convinced about filing into the shoes of Captain Amarinder Singh.

The attempts made by the top Congress leadership to convince Ambika Soni was not successful. Now far from the political limelight, Soni once was a prominent figure in the power corridors of Delhi. Her entry into politics was not conventional but rather unusual at best. Married to diplomat Uday Soni, ‘homemaker’ Ambika Soni lived in several places around the globe. During the couple’s stay in Rome in Italy, Soni caught the eye of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. “You must join politics,” Gandhi had insisted and Soni did not resist.

It was in 1969 that she was inducted into the Congress party. A few years later in 1975, Ambika Soni was appointed as the President of the Youth Congress. She became one of the closest aides of Indira Gandhi’s son Sanjay Gandhi. Following the proclamation of National Emergency by Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed on June 25, 1975, on the advice of Indira Gandhi, Soni and the Youth Congress played a critical role during the period. Alongside bureaucrat Naveen Chawla, socialite Rukhsana Sultana (infamous for forced sterilisation campaign), police officer PS Bhinder, Ambika Soni oversaw the implementation of Sanjay Gandhi’s 5-point programme.

This included demolition of slums/ beautification drive, adult literacy, abolition of dowry, caste system and contentious family planning. “At 34, the attractive Mrs Soni is still politically young, but her election as president of the Indian Youth Congress seems to have infused her three million party members with a new strength of purpose. In the brief period of time since her elevation from general secretary of the Youth Congress to its presidentship on November 13, Ambika Soni and her party have been figuring prominently in the news,” India Today magazine published on December 31, 1975 edition.

A tale of power, high-handedness and political overreach

Ambika Soni was ambitious and did not wish to be known as the wife of a diplomat alone. “I don’t intend to be a mere ambassador’s wife and live abroad. I belong with the party. In five years from now, I see myself still with the party, and still in politics,” she had said then. The Emergency of 1975 placed uncontrollable power in the hands of a selected few and it included Ambika Soni and other aides of Sanjay Gandhi. One such testimony of ‘unrestricted power’ appears in the book titled, ‘The Emergency: A Personal History’ by journalist Coomi Kapoor in 2016.

Kapoor narrated how her husband Virendra was put under arrest on November 1, 1975, for challenging Soni’s authority and asking her to adhere to the laws of the land. She wrote, “On that evening at the Red Fort function, Soni and a couple of her Youth Congress activists got hold of a boy who was barely out of his teens. She ordered the others present, including the police, to thrash the boy.” The vivid description gives a clear idea about the power that the Youth Congress President Ambika Soni yielded during the Emergency era. When Coomi Kapoor’s husband Virendra intervened, she was taken aback by his audacity.

“Why are you beating this boy? What has he done? If he has broken any law, the police will look after it. You are not the police,” he had asked. Soni initially mistook him for a cop but when she saw him walking away, the Youth Congress President was taken aback. On being told that he was an ordinary citizen like her, a disgruntled Soni claimed, “‘But don’t you think that instead of helping me arrest these boys, you were preventing me from getting hold of them?” Within minutes, Virendra was arrested and thrashed with batons. The fear among the cops was equally evident when DSP (Chandni Chowk) Ramamurthy Sharma told Virendra, “You have taken panga with Sanjay Gandhi’s special friend. I cannot help you.”

Political vendetta and vengeance : Ambika Soni

Unfortunately, no colleague of Coomi Kapoor came forward to provide evidence on circumstances that led to her husband’s arrest. Virendra Kapoor was released on bail and then arrested again under the draconian Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA). “It is indicative of the terror prevailing at the time that no Indians, not even colleagues, were prepared to give evidence on the circumstances surrounding Virendra’s arrest,” she wrote in her book. Life had become hard for the journalist, due to limited resources and difficulty in raising her toddler.

Coomi Kapoor also recounted that Soni had earned a reputation of being ‘free with her hands’, prior to the proclamation of Emergency as well. “Just before the Emergency, Soni had manhandled a group of Socialist youth who had marched to the Gol Methi Chowk outside the PM’s residence at 1 Safardarjung Road, demanding Mrs Gandhi’s resignation in the light of the judgment. The police had looked on passively,” she narrated. Today, when Ambika Soni hogs the limelight once again, owing to her self-righteous inner voice, the wrongdoings of the yesteryears have come back to haunt her.

References: Kapoor, C. (2016). The Emergency: A Personal History. India: Penguin Books Limited.

 

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Dibakar Dutta
Fascinated by Indian politics

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