The Prime Minister Narendra Modi and some of his Union ministers, including the defence minister Rajnath Singh, have demanded an apology from Rahul Gandhi for allegedly maligning India in the United Kingdom and seeking foreign intervention in restoring the crumbling structures of Indian democracy. The matter has snowballed into a parliamentary impasse over which House proceedings have been stalled for two consecutive days since the beginning of the second part of the Budget session.
The treasury benches’ concerted attack stems from an all-round campaign against Rahul Gandhi by the Bharatiya Janata Party across all platforms ever since the Congress leader repeated some of his criticisms of the Union government and its alleged misuse of power in his recent visit to the UK where he interacted with journalists, academics, researchers, and civil society activists.
The Congress, however, has said that an apology is not on the cards and accused the BJP and the Union government of spinning Gandhi’s statements for its political gains, and more importantly, deflecting attention from the Adani controversy that has rocked the parliament for days now.
What exactly did Gandhi say in London?
Did he really ask for foreign countries to intervene in India’s internal matters, as the defence minister claimed in the Lok Sabha?
Did he really “insult” India in London, as the Prime Minister claimed? The short answer is no. Gandhi, in fact, only repeated his earlier criticism against the Modi government.
Take a look at Gandhi’s statements.
“Look, first of all, this is our problem (erosion of democratic institutions under Modi); it is an internal problem and it is India’s problem and the solution is going to come from inside, it is not going to come from outside. However, the scale of democracy in India means that democracy in India is a global public good. It impacts way further than our boundaries,” Gandhi said to a question at the think tank Chatham House in London.
“If Indian democracy collapses, in my view, democracy on the planet suffers a very serious, possibly fatal blow. So, it is important for you too. It is not just important for us. We will deal with our problem, but you must be aware that this problem is going to play out on a global scale. It is not just going to play out in India and what you do about it is, of course, up to you. You must be aware of what is happening in India — the idea of a democratic model is being attacked and threatened,” he added.
However, the BJP particularly picked out one of his statements to allege that Gandhi sought foreign intervention in India’s internal affairs – something which, according to the BJP, compromised India’s autonomous position in the world.
However, Gandhi on his part only reminded the audience at the events that the western powers like the US and the UK which pride themselves as defenders of democracy have been “oblivious” to the systematic erosion of democracy in India.
Here is what Gandhi said at his first event at Cambridge University:
“Everyone knows and it’s been in the news a lot that Indian democracy is under pressure, is under attack, right. I am an opposition leader in India and we are navigating that space. What is happening is that the institutional framework which is required for a democracy – Parliament, free press, the judiciary – just the idea of mobilisation, just the idea of moving around…these are all getting constrained. So, we are facing an attack on the basic structure of democracy. In the Constitution, India is described as a Union of states and that Union requires a negotiation and a conversation. This is increasingly coming under threat.”
Similarly, speaking with journalists at an event organised by Indian Journalists Association in London, he said:
“People do not understand the scale of India and its democracy. So, how would you react if democracy suddenly disappeared in Europe? You would be shocked and you would be like ‘oh my God’ that is a massive blow to democracy. Well. how would you react if a structure three-and-a-half times Europe suddenly went non-democratic. That’s happening already. That’s not something that is going to happen in the future. It already happened.”
Taking a leaf out of the same argument, Gandhi said at the Chatham House:
“The surprising thing is that the so-called defenders of democracy, which are the US, European countries, seem to be oblivious that a huge chunk of democratic model has come undone. The opposition is fighting the battle and it is not an Indian battle alone, actually it is much more of a bigger battle, a battle for a huge part of democratic people.”
In his speeches, Gandhi also mentioned that his phone has been under surveillance, and that criticisms of the opposition are shut down by the government’s heavy-handed use of power. He alleged that discussions on controversial matters like demonetisation, problems with GST, or farmers’ laws, or even the Chinese aggression at India’s borders are not allowed to take place in the parliament.
“So, that stifling made us ask ourselves a fundamental question…How do we communicate with the people of India when the media is biased and when the institutions are captured? The answer we came up with within the Congress party was this walk (Bharat Jodo Yatra) across the country,” he said, while alleging that the opposition is finding increasingly difficult to communicate with people with the supposed takeover of platforms like media and other institutions by the union government.
The criticisms may have touched a raw nerve of the BJP’s, especially at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi is being projected as a global leader by his party, which has systematically attempted to show India as the new global superpower.
In fact, much of such a projection is likely to play a huge part in the saffron party’s campaign for the 2024 parliamentary elections.
Gandhi’s description of the RSS – a possible trigger for the BJP to launch an attack
However, what may have also offended the BJP is Gandhi’s straight criticism of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in London, prompting the RSS second-in-command Dattatreya Hosabale to attack the Congress leader. Many RSS leaders also double up as BJP’s leaders. Also, the Sangh Parivar has a sizeable foreign presence and has been very active in drawing attention to the BJP’s campaigns in India and amplifying Narendra Modi’s larger-than-life image abroad.
Against such a backdrop, Gandhi compared the RSS to the Muslim Brotherhood and called the organisation a “fascist and fundamentalist outfit”.
“When I joined politics in 2004, the democratic contest in India used to be between political parties and I had never imagined that the nature of the contest would change completely. The reason it changed is because one organisation called the RSS, a fundamentalist, fascist organisation has basically captured pretty much all of India’s institutions,” he said.
“The RSS is a secret society. It is built along the lines of the Muslim Brotherhood and the idea is to use the democratic contest to come to power and then subvert the democratic contest afterwards. It shocked me how successful they have been at capturing the different institutions of our country. The press, the judiciary, Parliament, the Election Commission and all the institutions are under pressure, and (are) controlled in one way or the other,” he added.
Gandhi has been making these criticisms against the BJP and the Sangh parivar consistently since the last few years. His opinions were amplified even more by the Congress during the recent Bharat Jodo Yatra. His statements in London weren’t new except for the fact that they were spoken in front of an international audience.
Political observers may ask whether it was prudent for Gandhi to take his criticisms abroad or not, given that he has faced similar attacks by the BJP each time he has spoken in front of an international audience in the past. However, Gandhi in making his criticisms has not hesitated in opening himself up to such attacks.
Many on the other side of the government have privately been saying that Gandhi and the Congress may need to define the contours of its criticisms, especially since high-pitched nationalism has been the biggest draw for the BJP in electoral battles. Now as the Lok Sabha elections are only a year away, critics feel that the Congress may need some strategic thinking to better focus on palpable problems of people under Modi, like inflation, unemployment, and a general erosion of social harmony in India – issues that could bring Gandhi closer to the electorate and his own party’s rank and file.
But such electoral considerations do not seem to have stopped Gandhi – so far – from being a straight-talking politician.
Meanwhile, in Gandhi’s criticism, BJP has found yet another opportunity to not only deflect attention from the opposition’s demand for a judicial probe into the Adani controversy and allegations of cronyism against the Modi government but also malign Gandhi and the Congress ahead of the Lok Sabha polls.