Indian Politics in Uproar Over Opposition Leader Gandhi’s Arrest
Disqualification from parliament follows
By: Jyoti Malhotri
The disqualification today from Parliament of India’s most important opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party, has thrown Indian politics into disarray and stunned the country, setting the stage for a fractious political battle in national elections to be held a year from now.
Less than 24 hours after a court in Gujarat, the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, convicted the 52-year-old Gandhi for defamation for a remark he had made in the 2019 election campaign, the parliamentary secretary issued a notice Friday afternoon, saying Gandhi, the scion of arguably India’s most prominent political family, stands disqualified from his Wayanad parliamentary constituency in Kerala.
Gandhi’s legal team is mounting a challenge against the Gujarat court’s judgment in the Supreme Court, but if the conviction is not stayed in time, then the opposition leader faces the prospect of going to jail. According to the law, he can’t contest elections for the next eight years.
The damning phrase that has thrown Gandhi into this political soup is one he used in the runup to the 2019 election, when at a political rally he had wondered aloud “if all men with the surname of Modi are thieves.” The name belongs not just to Narendra Modi but also to two absconders – businessman Nirav Modi and cricket enthusiast Lalit Modi, a popular family name that represents a large backward caste community.
It was a throwaway remark that politicians often make in the heat of the moment, but in this case, it has cost him dear. A BJP politician from Gujarat, also with the same last name, accused Gandhi of defaming an entire community and went to court.
While many believe that the Gujarat court was well within its authority to mete out such harsh punishment to the Congress leader, others said they were stunned with the ferocity of the decision and the rapidity with which it had been followed through by Parliament.
What happens now and how it will change Indian politics are the two biggest questions that face the Indian political class today. The BJP refused to comment on the disqualification, only saying that Gandhi had “defamed an entire backward caste community” and must apologize.
The Congress party was naturally in a state of shock. Shashi Tharoor, the MP from Thiruvananthapuram, said, "This is politics with the gloves off and it bodes ill for our democracy." Party leader and senior lawyer Abhishek Manu Singhvi, who has been seconded to mount the legal challenge on Gandhi’s behalf, said the move smacked of “political vendetta.”
But what may be the most interesting and significant aspect of l’affaire Gandhi so far is the support that regional parties have begun to demonstrate in his favor. West Bengal’s ruling party, the Trinamool National Congress (TMC), which had only recently urged Gandhi to urge the Congress to stop behaving like a local bully, issued a statement in support.
West Bengal Chief minister Mamata Banerjee said, “today we have witnessed a new low in our constitutional democracy,” while Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, a political arch-enemy of the Congress party, said the BJP and PM Modi "want to create an environment that there is only one party and only one leader left in the country. They want all the other leaders and parties to be finished. This is called dictatorship."
Uddhav Thackeray, former chief minister of India’s richest state, Maharashtra, added, “thieves are still free and Rahul Gandhi is being punished.” Thackeray’s ire stems from the fact that he was ousted from his position a few months ago by an arch-rival from within his party, which was supported by the BJP.
If this regional support for Gandhi remains solid, then the course of Indian politics over the next year in the runup to the general elections could become interesting.
That is because the Congress party remains the only political party, besides the BJP, to have a nationwide political presence, primarily because it fought the freedom movement and remains embedded in the national consciousness as the party that threw out the British that had ruled India for 90 years.
Even though the Congress is today largely toothless and defanged, in power in only two states out of 29 in the country, it possesses a national footprint. Regional parties like the TMC, which rules West Bengal, and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which rules the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, cannot dream of expanding their presence beyond their provincial frontiers.
This is what irritates the BJP. Soon after it came to power in 2014, the party said one of its primary jobs would be to evict the Congress from its pole position -- “Congress-mukt Bharat” is the phrase in Hindi, meaning, “a Congress-free India.”
The disqualification of Rahul Gandhi and his removal from Parliament may smack of petty political vendetta, but the fact that Gandhi was naïve enough not to anticipate these tactics demonstrates his lack of political cunning and understanding of what the ruling party is capable of.
So, will Rahul Gandhi go to jail and reap the political sympathy that is more than likely to come his way as a result? Or will he exhort his legal team to try and keep him out, so he can continue to enjoy the comforts of his home in the heart of Delhi?
Several political analysts told this reporter that if Gandhi does, indeed, go to jail, it may be the only way in which he can vindicate his criticism of the Modi government. They pointed out that it was “an unequal fight, anyway,” but that if Gandhi decided to actually join the political battle, he may pick up some of the sympathy vote that comes the way of the underdog.
Certainly, it all depends on how Rahul Gandhi will now play his most important move on India's political chessboard. If he is shrewd and demonstrates politically cunning, he could take a leaf out of his grandmother, Indira Gandhi’s book. Soon after she lost power in the 1977 elections, Mrs Gandhi traveled to the scene of a caste massacre in a village called Belchi in Bihar to commiserate with its victims. She rode an elephant because the roads were in terrible shape and even walked part of the way. She demonstrated that she was there to stay in Indian politics and could not be so easily manipulated.
Some say that Rahul Gandhi is no Indira Gandhi, that he doesn’t have her political smarts. But Rahul’s sister, Priyanka, points out that her brother is one of those “completely unafraid people,” who will always do right for the country.
Perhaps the BJP is banking on the fact that Gandhi doesn’t really have his finger on the national political pulse. Arguably the most powerful party in the world, the BJP may either soon reap the biggest windfall of its existence, or face the biggest head-winds it has seen.
If the Congress party caves in, the BJP is home and dry. But if the Congress decides to dissolve its own arrogance and join hands with the other regional parties to create a genuinely united Opposition that together takes on the BJP, then the BJP may have a fight on its hands.
For the Congress and the rest of the opposition, the Darwinian slogan, “survival of the fittest” could become its motto if it plays its cards properly. Fighting the BJP is no easy task – it has large amounts of money at its disposal as well as the untrammeled power that comes from being in control of as large a country as India for so long as it ruled.
For the Congress, today is when it can finally reemerge as a true leader, baptized by the fire of the political moment. If it blows this chance, there may not be many left in the near future to challenge the might of the BJP.
If the BJP and Prime Minister Modi are able to overcome this potential challenge by the Congress and its potential allies, then it looks like it will not only win the coming elections next year, but become politically invincible for some time to come.
Rahul Gandhi's moment is now. He can transform his disqualification as MP from Wayanad and become a real leader or he can return to the easier option of being a lotus-eater and shooting shrilly just from his mouth. It is a tough decision -- and it is his to take.
Jyoti Malhotra is a journalist living in Delhi