Congress leader Rahul Gandhi on Tuesday said that the Emergency imposed by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975 was a “mistake” but there was a “fundamental difference” between the situation then and now, reported NDTV.

“I think that was a mistake,” Gandhi said in a conversation with Cornell University Professor of Economics Kaushik Basu. “Absolutely, that was a mistake. And my grandmother [Indira Gandhi] said as much.”

The Bharatiya Janata Party, whose leaders were among those jailed during the Emergency, has frequently criticised the Congress for the period when constitutional rights and civil liberties were suspended in the country.

Last year, Union Home Minister Amit Shah had attacked the Congress for turning the country into what he called a prison and curtailing all forms of freedom during the Emergency.

“On this day [Thursday, June 25], 45 years ago one family’s greed for power led to the imposition of the Emergency,” Shah had tweeted. “Overnight the nation was turned into a prison. The press, courts, free speech all were trampled over. Atrocities were committed on the poor and downtrodden.”

During the online conversation on Tuesday, Gandhi said that there was a “fundamental difference” between what happened during the Emergency and now, alleging that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological mentor, was filling institutions with its own people.

“So, even if we defeat the BJP in the election, we are not going to get rid of their people in the institutional structure,” he said. “Modern democracies function because there is institutional balance... Institutions operate independently. That independence is being attacked in India [by] one big institution called RSS... being systematically done...would not say democracy is eroding, would say it is being strangled.”

Gandhi said the Congress at no point attempted to capture India’s institutional framework. “Frankly, it does not even have that capability,” the Congress leader said.

He recalled a conversation with former Madhya Chief Minister Kamal Nath before his government collapsed last year. Gandhi said that Nath had told him that senior bureaucrats in his government would not follow his orders as they claimed allegiance to the RSS. “So, it is fundamentally different what is going on,” he said.

On the internal conflict in the party, Gandhi said that he was the one who pushed for elections at the Youth Congress and National Students’ Union of India levels but was “attacked” by his own party leaders, reported The Hindu.

The Congress leader asked why nobody questions the lack of internal democracy in the BJP, the Bahujan Samaj Party or the Samajwadi Party and only focused on his party. “There’s a reason,” he said. “We are an ideological party and it is the ideology of the Constitution. Therefore, it is more important for us to be democratic.”

On his father and former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s killing, the former Congress chief said he was was “walking towards his death because he had taken on big forces”. “It was very painful...but it made me understand violence,” he told Basu.

BJP mocks Gandhi

The Bharatiya Janata Party, in turn, mocked Gandhi, saying his comments about the Emergency were “laughable”, NDTV reported. Union minister Prakash Javadekar particularly hit out at the Congress leader for asserting that institutions were not weakened at the time like they were being damaged now by the RSS.

“His comments are laughable,” Javadekar said at a press conference. “At the time, the government suppressed all organisations. MPs and MLAs were arrested. Almost all parties were banned. Newspapers were also shut down.”

Javadekar added that it will take Gandhi “a lot of time to understand” the RSS. “The RSS is the biggest school of patriotism in the world,” he added.

Haryana minister and BJP leader Anil Vij also weighed in on the matter, saying that if Gandhi really wants to atone for the imposition of emergency in the country, then he should leave “the dictatorial party”.

“It is not enough for Rahul Gandhi to accept that the Emergency imposed by his grandmother in 1975 was a mistake, because anti-democratic and dictatorship thinking is still alive in Congress,” Vij wrote in a series of tweets. “Indira Gandhi may not be here but the rest of the leaders who supported the Emergency are still active in the Congress.”