NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Rahul Gandhi, the heir-apparent of India’s ruling Congress party, was briefly arrested after he joined farmers protesting against land being taken over for a $2 billion highway, underscoring how land disputes are emerging as a political issue.
Gandhi, seen as a prime minister-in-waiting, was held late Wednesday for two hours under preventive detention laws in opposition-ruled Uttar Pradesh state before being bailed and escorted by police to New Delhi, sparking off more protests.
Gandhi had abandoned his security detail and rode pillion on a motorcycle to Bhatta Parsaul village, where a week-long agitation against the highway to the Taj Mahal city of Agra has intensified after police shot dead two protesters.
NDTV reported on its website that farmers were paid a little over 800 rupees ($18) per square meter for the land on which six townships are to be built alongside the highway. That same land was sold to developers for 3,200 rupees a square meter and resold as residential plots for 14,000 rupees a square meter.
“I feel ashamed to call myself Indian after seeing what has happened here. The (state) government here has unleashed atrocities on its own people,” Gandhi said at the protest site.
Congress supporters across cities in Uttar Pradesh held demonstrations on Thursday against Gandhi’s arrest and scores were detained as they blocked roads and railway lines, underscoring how the issue could spiral.
Ahead of a 2014 general election, the left-of-center Congress is increasingly taking the side of farmers and others whose lands have been taken over for the highways, utilities and factories needed to power India’s near 9 percent growth.
Gandhi is the son of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, India’s most powerful politician. He has set his sights on resurrecting Congress in time for state polls next year, pitting him against Mayawati, the fiery “untouchable” state chief minister.
Congress hopes to tap into farmers’ discontent, intensified by rising income inequalities between cities and villages, to strengthen Congress and shed its dependence on fickle allies to rule in New Delhi.
Land conflicts have the potential of unseating governments, especially since India’s colonial era laws allow the state to take over land without compensation to owners.
A 34-year-old Communist rule in West Bengal state looks set to end as voters punish it for a badly implemented plan to seize land to rapidly industrialize the state.
“Land has been the most contentious issues without a resolution. As something that can be exploited for political gains, land presents an opportunity,” said Abheek Baruah, chief economist at HDFC Bank.
Uttar Pradesh is key to controlling power in New Delhi, as it is India’s most populous state, sending the largest block of lawmakers to parliament, but Congress is a minor player there.
“They (Congress) are seeking an opportunity to re-enter Uttar Pradesh. But I don’t see any great resurgence there (and) they are feeling desperate,” said Sudha Pai, professor of politics at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.
The protests in Uttar Pradesh are the latest in a series across India over attempts to acquire land for industry, which have delayed multi-billion dollar investment plans by firms like ArcelorMittal and Tata Steel.
Such protests forced the government in August to scrap Vedanta Resources’ plans to mine bauxite from land held sacred by indigenous people in eastern Orissa state.
Gandhi had visited Orissa days after the project was killed, hailing the victory for the protesters and promising them he would be their voice in the corridors of power in New Delhi.
Additional reporting Alka Pande in LUCKNOW; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani