New Delhi: The alacrity with which the Lok Sabha secretariat moved to disqualify Rahul Gandhi from the Lok Sabha within 24 hours of his conviction in a criminal defamation case has only cemented the perception that the sentencing of the Congress leader and Wayanad MP was politically motivated.
Section 103 of the Constitution clearly states that any disqualification order of an MP has to come from the President of India in consultation with the Election Commission of India. In other circumstances, the bureaucratic chain involved in the process would have taken days, if not weeks.
Rahul Gandhi, however, is a special case. The tallest leader of India’s largest opposition party needed to be served as an example of the rising unilateralism that has come to characterise the Narendra Modi government.
The Congress has said that it will fight Gandhi’s conviction and disqualification in courts but it appears that the developments have fuelled the beleaguered grand-old party’s appetite for street fights. The political fight ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections will undoubtedly be led by Gandhi himself. The biggest political programme that the Congress has led since 2014 is the Bharat Jodo Yatra that Gandhi led. Since then, he has been at his aggressive best, picking on the Modi government on its Achilles heel – nationalism and corruption.
In each of his speeches and conversations, Gandhi has come down heavily on the Modi government’s alleged miscommunications on the Chinese aggression in India’s borders in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. Similarly, his attacks on the Prime Minister for allegedly facilitating the Adani group’s steep rise over the last few years has somehow touched BJP’s raw nerve.
It is widely assumed that Gautam Adani, the business house chief, has benefited from his long friendship with Modi. The US-based investment firm Hindenburg Research expose of the Adani group’s financial scams lent credibility to the allegations of cronyism and corruption that Gandhi has been alleging against the Modi government. Not only did the Hindenburg Research’s resort boosted the grand-old party’s confidence but also gave it a ready platform to begin its 2024 Lok Sabha campaign.
Both these issues are BJP’s soft spots. Since 2014, the BJP has never batted an eyelid on a range of issues like demonetisation, or the allegedly poor implementation of GST, or even issues like unprecedented price rise and unemployment. It could still come across as a forward-looking party, even if it came with a strong dose of Hindutva and authoritarianism.
But the twin issues of Chinese aggression and the Adani controversy were aimed at BJP’s biggest strengths – nationalism and incorruptibility. That these issues were being spoken about by the opposition at a time when the Prime Minister is being projected as “a statesman” with a popular appeal beyond India, a leader steering the “Mother of Democracy”, and as a global leader capable of resolving international conflicts and impasses surely had the potential to hurt the BJP’s momentum in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections.
However, the way Rahul Gandhi has been hounded over the last month shows a different side of the BJP. It appears to be unnerved. Firstly, many sections of his speech on the Adani controversy and alleged cronyism in the Lok Sabha were expunged. Then the BJP cadre came all guns blazing to first distort Gandhi’s remarks in the UK and then demand an apology for those comments. Hardly has any opposition member of the parliament been on such a vigorous attack from the Treasury benches. Gandhi was not even allowed to speak in the Lok Sabha before he apologised. The political tussle became so intense that the treasury benches did not allow parliamentary proceedings to take their own course, disrupting the House almost every day, forcing frequent adjournments, and eventually passing the budget without any discussion.
Then came the CJM court’s sentencing and Gandhi’s quick disqualification. This is the first instance when Gandhi was not derided as “pappu” or ridiculed by the BJP when he upped his ante. The concerted singling out of Gandhi and his eventual disqualification, even as 16 opposition parties demanded a JPC probe on the Adani group’s alleged liasoning with the Modi government, indicates that the saffron campaigns to write off Gandhi too were attempts to prevent him from becoming a serious challenger to Modi.
In all his speeches, Modi has taken aim only at the Congress, never at other opposition parties, knowing fully well that only the Congress that is placed directly against the BJP in over 250 Lok Sabha seats could emerge as a serious challenger to the saffron regime. By trying to silence Gandhi, the BJP may have only ended up justifying his campaign that Indian democracy is at risk, and that the Modi government’s authoritarian tendencies have compromised public institutions. The Bharat Jodo Yatra, after all, could be deemed a success, going by the BJP’s disproportionate – and poorly-timed – aggression against Gandhi.
Gandhi’s sentencing and disqualification could prove to be a blessing in disguise both for him and his party. With the Lok Sabha elections, the Congress under the leadership of Gandhi could run a campaign built on emotive and material issues to emerge as a serious alternative. The party has received an impetus in the form of disproportionate punishment for Gandhi. The Congress will only need to advance an alternative political and economic vision to enthuse the electorate and re-emerge as a solid opposition.
Gandhi’s disqualification has also garnered unconditional support from a range of opposition leaders, including Mamata Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal, YSR Jagan Reddy and many others – all of whom are grappling with the Centre’s political pressure. It may also be the right time for the Congress to unite opposition parties on a range of issues. Even if many opposition parties eventually do not come together in elections, ideological unity on issues like rising authoritarianism, price rise, unemployment, alleged targeting of opposition leaders, and growing social disharmony may go a long way in building the opposition’s narrative.
BJP, well aware of such possibilities, has already begun to push the argument that Gandhi’s Kolar statement targeting economic offenders Lalit Modi and Nirav Modi and equating them with the Prime Minister insulted the entire OBC communities of India – and that his sentencing because of the very statement was justified. None other than BJP president J.P. Nadda floated the narrative on the very day of his disqualification when Gandhi appeared to be drawing sympathy and solidarity from diverse quarters.
Gandhi is clearly the underdog at the moment. His disqualification shows that the Modi government has scant respect for institutions and a democratic, level-playing political field in its pursuit to win elections and establish saffron hegemony. The message that any dissent will be criminalised, and that it didn’t matter if it came from a journalist, an activist, a student, or even one of the most important political leaders of the country, could not be clearer than this as it is now. The opposition leaders’s show of support to Gandhi, despite their differences, concretely establishes the existing political polarisation in India.
Gandhi has shown a fighting spirit as both his tweets and statements indicate. His party leaders have shown similar courage by not buckling under pressure. Gandhi has been projecting himself as a leader with no particular love for power – a saintly, unassuming leader who can fight to protect India’s diversity and its people. He has shown his moral resolve in the last few months. It may be the right time for him to take that aspect of his personality to the people, irrespective of the possibility that he may not be eligible to contest the next Lok Sabha elections.