India’s political trajectory is completing the cycle I expected.
In Modi’s India (Westland 2023), I studied the transition from national populism to electoral authoritarianism, a phase marked by the capture by the executive of key institutions (including the Election Commission) and the domestication of “mainstream” media with the help of crony capitalists. During this moment that other countries have experienced too, elections are still taking place because the supreme leader needs the legitimacy of a popular mandate for prevailing over other power centres (including the judiciary), but elections are not a level playing field anymore, not only because of the media’s bias, but also because of the saturation of the public space that big money permits (hence electoral bonds etc.).
A new sequence has just started. When institutions of the Republic are captured by the ruling party the way they are in India today, the opposition is forced to find alternative ways and means. Rahul Gandhi invested first in parliament, where he denounced attacks against democracy and the nexus between the Modi government and new oligarchs, but that was clearly not enough: not only has parliament been emasculated (to such an extent that some of the debates which took place there during the Emergency compare favourably with what we see today), but Lok Sabha speeches are not reported in the “mainstream” media anymore.
The leader of the opposition needed to go to the people, to interact directly with those who otherwise would continue to ignore reality because of constant disinformation. The Bharat Jodo Yatra was also a way to remobilise the Congress cadres in the wake of the recent party elections. In spite of very poor media coverage (qualitatively as well as quantitatively), this 4,000-km-long yatra has been a success: Congress was on its way back to its pre-independence roots, as a social movement bringing together all kinds of people, when the dominant majoritarian doxa tends to exclude so many citizens from the official nation.
The next moves
The next step was predictable: Rahul Gandhi “had” to be neutralised. The pretext that has been used – defamation of the Modis of the world – is the only thing one could find. It sounds paradoxical given the kind of sarcasm Narendra Modi himself resorted to vis-à-vis “Pasta behen”, the “Jersey cow” and “Maun Mohan Singh”. But there was no better alibi available. It was useful simply because MPs sentenced to two years of jail can be disqualified – and the objective was to remove Rahul Gandhi from parliament.
This move reflects the extreme nervousness of the rulers who clearly apprehend new discussions on the relations between Gautam Adani and Narendra Modi in parliament, at a time when the business community, in India and abroad, is holding its breath. Moves of that kind are always Plan Bs – to avoid the worse. But this exercise in damage control will have adverse consequences.
First, opposition leaders are not sentenced to jail for minor crimes like this one in liberal democracies. India, therefore, is weakening its claim of being the “mother of democracy” and the “Guru of the word”: the country is diluting its soft power six months before the G20 summit when it was supposed to promote this image.
Secondly, like in Turkey, Israel, Hungary and Poland, radical moves like this one foster the unity of the opposition. Rivals of Rahul Gandhi, including Arvind Kejriwal, are now realising the existential risk that this regime is representing for all dissenters – including them, something the arrest of Manish Sisodia had already made clear. When opposition leaders close ranks, the task of authoritarian leaders become more complicated: their polarisation strategy, in a way, boomerangs. This new situation “forces” them to become even more illiberal, except if they can co-opt new supporters: whether the Jyotiraditya Scindia’s “model”/syndrome can be replicated will be an important variable to factor in for assessing India’s political situation in the coming weeks and months. But leaders of state parties, not only in Delhi and Punjab, but also in Bihar, in UP (where Mayawati may return to active politics one day), West Bengal, Odisha, Jharkhand and Kerala may join those of Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu because the order of the day may now be to close ranks. The results of the coming elections in Karnataka (and then in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan) will of course also determine the scenario of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
Lastly, the disqualification of Rahul Gandhi (and his possible imprisonment) may be counterproductive for the country’s rulers.
In case he is jailed, it may result in the shift of the victimisation repertoire from one side of the political spectrum to the other. Since 2002, Narendra Modi projects himself as a victim of the establishment represented by the “liberals”, “Lutyens Delhi-ites”, the “Khan market gang” and their spokespersons (including the NDTV of yesteryears). He claimed to embody the suffering of the plebeians who are also the direct casualties of these elite groups, as a “chaiwallah” and an OBC. This repertoire may not be audible anymore if the real victim is none other than Rahul Gandhi, the great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru who spent more than nine years of his life in jail and made many sacrifices for the cause of India’s freedom.
But in case Rahul is not sent to jail, he will continue to be on the street. After the Yatra that took him from Tamil Nadu to Jammu and Kashmir, another one can now take place between Gujarat and the North-East, via strongholds of BJP, including UP. The Congress can now rely not only on party cadres, but also on sympathisers who are identifying its chief as the alternative to Modi. Here is another lesson of the disqualification move: till recently, the BJP leaders congratulated themselves to have to fight against Rahul Gandhi, whom they considered as weaker than Mamata Banerjee or Arvind Kejriwal. Times are changing – because of his stamina that has endowed him with some new charisma, but also because of the way the BJP leaders have targeted him: paradoxically, the rulers of the country are actively participating in the making of their challenger.
The road ahead
Whether Rahul will be finally convicted will depend on the role that the judiciary will play. Recently, Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud described the basic structure of the Constitution as the North Star of India’s democracy. Will the Supreme Court fight again to defend it? If so, after more than six years of mostly complacent verdicts – or abstention of any verdict – the court would be back on the forefront of public life and that may not be good news for the country rulers either.
To sum up: Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification may be a turning point, but the ball is in the court of the opposition, of the judiciary – and in the court of Rahul himself! I do not expect any reaction from the West whose priorities are not articulated in terms of democratic values anymore and whose presence in the debate may be counterproductive anyway: the syndrome of the “foreign hand” – that Indira Gandhi used during the Emergency – remains very strong, as the uproar caused by Rahul’s recent speeches in UK have shown.
Christophe Jaffrelot is a senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, Professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London, and non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.