Will Rahul Gandhi’s Disqualification Make Him the Leader of the Opposition? Not So Fast.

It requires flexibility and adjustment from all sides before a united group to challenge the BJP can be formed.

Rahul Gandhi has been disqualified as a member of parliament by the Lok Sabha Secretariat, a day after his conviction in a defamation case by a magister’s court in Surat. The circumstances leading to the conviction are somewhat strange – the man who sued Rahul Gandhi had himself asked for a stay on the case but withdrew it in February this year. The court speedily sentenced him to two years. He has now been asked to get out of his official residence within a month. The system, when it wants to, works really fast. Will they now, equally swiftly, jail him?

The BJP’s antipathy, even fear, of Rahul Gandhi, has pushed it to try and sideline him so that he cannot take part in the next elections. This despite calling him a dimwit for years and dismissing him as irrelevant. But instead, it turns out, the ruling party, with an unassailable majority in parliament and a vote-winning leader, is afraid of him. This is not an authoritarian government—it is a scared one.

And by going after him with such a vengeance, the government may have made him a more potent force now – if he is imprisoned, it will make him even more of a symbol than ever before, around which his party will coalesce.

Also Read: What Is the Rs 20,000 Crore Figure Rahul Gandhi Spoke of in Adani’s ‘Shell Companies’?

The disqualification has been condemned by not just the Congress but also many opposition leaders, ranging from Pinarayi Vijayan to Akhilesh Yadav to Arvind Kejriwal. A rare case of the opposition united on an issue. Does this augur well for a united grouping to fight the BJP in the 2024 elections and will it last? And does it help the Congress?

In January, the nearly five-month-long Bharat Jodo Yatra led by Rahul Gandhi came to an end and got him and his party a lot of goodwill, even if the mainstream media either ignored it or ridiculed him. At every stage, Gandhi was joined by hundreds of enthusiastic supporters as he walked resolutely to connect with the ‘real India’. The symbolism of unfurling the Indian flag at Lal Chowk in Kashmir at the end of the Yatra was a powerful one. The Congress claimed that the Yatra had rattled the BJP.

In Parliament in February, Gandhi made a speech where he alleged there were close links between Narendra Modi and Gautam Adani, showing a photograph of both of them. The remarks were expunged by the speaker Om Birla.

Soon after, he went to the UK, where he met MPs, journalists and NRIs. The BJP jumped on some statements he allegedly made about the need for the international community to “intervene” to save Indian democracy. The evidence suggests he said nothing of the sort, but the BJP propaganda machine was in full throttle, claiming he had insulted India.

It was clear that Rahul Gandhi was getting under the BJP’s skin and after the disqualification, he clearly said that the government does not want the Adani connection with Modi flagged in parliament. 

Rahul Gandhi comes across as the sole politician who is ready to take on Narendra Modi and attack him where it hurts. Parliament was stalled by the treasury benches after Gandhi’s speech, which was unusual, given that it is the opposition that usually raises a ruckus. After the disqualification, he came across as fully charged – even if his humiliation of a journalist was wholly unwarranted. He is willing to say things the others won’t or can’t. And he has a national profile.

Congress workers in Goa protest against the disqualification and conviction of Rahul Gandhi, March 26, 2023. Photo: Twitter/@INCIndia

Will it galvanise the opposition?

From here on, the Congress can only build upon this new, positive profile. The onus is on the Grand Old Party to show accommodation and not get stuck on its usual argument that it should occupy the central pole in any opposition front. It will want to project Rahul Gandhi as the leader of such a front. As a national party – and the one with the highest vote share among the opposition parties – this is somewhat understandable. It also has the most seats in the Lok Sabha after the BJP, even if it is a meagre 50 plus.

Some commentators have even argued that these events will – should – galvanise the opposition into rallying behind him to lead a group to unitedly challenge the BJP in the elections, especially if he is jailed.

But will the regional parties, guarding their own territories zealously, agree to this? Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party, who had partnered with the Congress in the past, has already made it clear that this is not so simple.

It is not that the Congress has not been flexible before. In Maharashtra in 2019, the party did poorly in the elections and willingly joined the Maha Vikas Aghadi government as the third partner after the Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party, which won more seats. On the national level, however, this is a deal-breaker. The opposition parties say the Congress is arrogant. Can it shed that tag?

The Congress think tank will have to now work up a strategy that focuses on Rahul Gandhi but at the same time is open-ended enough to work with opposition parties to build up a front that can fight the BJP at the local level. The Congress is not without friends among opposition parties. A few others could come on board.

At the same time, the other opposition parties, adamantly anti-Congress, will also have to give up their inflexible positions and work out some arrangement with the bigger party. Will the twain meet?