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Congress party anger after leader Rahul Gandhi arrested at farmers' protest

Arrest of Mr Gandhi in Uttar Pradesh after he joined farmers protesting against the construction of a highway has further poisoned relations between the state's firebrand leader, chief minister Mayawati, and the Congress party.

NEW DELHI // India's ruling Congress party criticised police yesterday for arresting its senior leader, Rahul Gandhi, as he took part in protests by farmers.

The 40-year-old scion of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty and son of the Congress party president, Sonia Gandhi, was briefly taken into custody on Wednesday night after he joined farmers protesting against the construction of a highway.

Yesterday, other political leaders trying to join the protest, including Arun Jaitley and Rajnath Singh from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), were also detained by police, reports said.

The arrest of Mr Gandhi in Uttar Pradesh has further poisoned relations between the state's firebrand leader, chief minister Mayawati, and the Congress party, which fiercely protects its young leader's image.

"How can the state government arrest Rahul Gandhi? He is fighting for the farmers and that is not a crime," said the Congress spokesman, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, in New Delhi.

"The state government of Uttar Pradesh is greedy for farmlands. They are attacking farmers, killing people, destroying crops. We will not let this happen," he said.

Mr Gandhi, an Uttar Pradesh MP, was detained because of fears that a rally he planned to hold yesterday would turn violent, the local government said. He was escorted to the capital and freed about 2am.

Mr Gandhi's smiling face as he was driven away by police was captured on most newspaper front pages yesterday and the arrest might burnish his credentials and popularity.

Sanjay Kumar, a political analyst at the Centre for the Developing Societies think-tank in New Delhi, said: "You are not recognised as a political leader in India till you are arrested.

"Getting arrested is like receiving a medal for any politician. It is their dream to lead a popular movement, stage protests, garner mass support."

The Congress party, which still benefits from its legacy as India's independence-era political party, held protest rallies against Mayawati, a populist low-caste leader who has clashed before with the Gandhis.

Mayawati's government had sought to restrict access to the Bhatta and Parsaul villages on the outskirts of New Delhi, where farmers and police battled at the weekend, leaving three people dead.

Mr Gandhi, who has built his image as a champion of the poor, sneaked into the area riding pillion on a motorbike in the early hours of Wednesday. Before his arrest, he spoke with farmers and denounced the local government.

He is a rising political star, the great-grandson of India's independence prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, the grandson of late former prime minister Indira Gandhi and the son of the late former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.

The farmers have been agitating for more than three months for higher compensation for land acquired as part of a project to build a 165-kilometre expressway between New Delhi and Agra, home to the Taj Mahal.

The Yamuna Expressway aims to reduce driving time between the cities to 90 minutes from its current four hours.

Mayawati told reporters yesterday: "The entire episode is just a cheap stunt by the Congress. They are trying to disrupt law and order and they have no right to do so. Farmers have been given compensation.

"Rahul Gandhi is indulging in dramatics," she said.