After months of hesitation, the Indian government moved without warning today and arrested former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and at least four members of her cabinet, charging them with corruption.
The 59 year-old Gandhi was taken into police custody for an appearance in court Tuesday after she refused to post bail. Gandhi demanded that she be taken away from her home in handcuffs but police agents refused her request.
In a statement issued before being taken into custody, the former prime minister asserted her "arrest is a political one. It is to prevent me from going before the people. It is an attempt to discredit me in their eyes and the eyes of the world."
Today's action came in the wake of a series of trips and political meetings Gandhi has held in various parts of India receiving enthusiatic turnouts wherever she's gone.
In the weeks immediately after her defeat in national elections last March millions of Indians were after Gandhi's blood. Had Prime Miniter Morarji Desai ordered her arrest then, he would have won widespread plaudits.
Since then, however, reports of rising discontent with the new government have been aweeping India. The country is now faced with labor arrest, rising prices, and perhaps most discouraging for many Indians, the apparent inability of the Desai government to take any decisive action.
Sensing this Gandhi clearly went out of her way to seek confrontation, publicly taunting Desai to arrest her. "If they had guts they could have jailed me as a political prisoner," she declared on several occasions during the past few weeks. "But they have no guts."
It may be an expression of the government's insecurity that the 81-year-old Desai has waited until today to crack down. Only a few months ago he told interviewers that he did not believe a criminal case made against Gandhi. But today's government move can easily backfire. If recent events in neighboring Pakistan are any indicator, her arrest could earn Gandhi a badge of courage. With her popularity already on the rise, the case against her could be just what she needed to change her tarnished image.
In Pakistan when former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was arrested also on corruption chances by the military regime last month, his reputation was at its nadir. But as a result of his jailing. Bhutto's image has improved enormously during the past few weeks.
Gandhi was snared in a web of political corruption as they probed the inner circle of her government. She was charged in two cases under India's Prevention of Corruption Act.
Officials said one case dealt with Gandhi's "illegally conniving" with others and pressuring two companies to obtain 104 jeeps for election work in several districts including her own. The second charge alleged she misused her position in awarding a $13.4 million government oil drilling contract to a French firm, despite a lower bid by a competitor. The names of the companies involved and other details were not made public.
Nine other persons, including four Gandhi Cabinet minister positions and Gandhi's personal secretary, were also arrested. Her son, Sanjay, 30, has already, been implicated in a half dozen legal cases.
As scores of agents descended on Gandhi's house today, a crowd of more than, 1,000 of her followers gathered in the area, chaning "Long Live Indira Gandhi" and shouting against the "dictatorship" of the Desai government.
Gandhi's four Cabinet colleagues who were also arrested today were H. R. Gokhale, law minister, D. P. Chattopadhyaya, commerce: P. C. Sethi, chemicals, and K. D. Malaviya, petroleum.
Her arrest came after a slow and meticulous investigation of the former prime minister and persons close to her rule which ended with her election defeat last March.
Inevitably, Gandhi supporters will claim that Desai is carrying out a political vendetta. Desai was among thousands of Indians arrested by Gandhi during her emergency rule.
It has been reported that Desai was reluctant to order Gandhi's arrest. The trap door apparently was sprung beneath her only after the government was certain that it had an ironclad case.
One Indian official said today, "The case against Mrs. Gandhi has got to be ironclad. There can be no mistakers.