Prima facie, the Narendra Modi government had no role to play in the Rahul Gandhi imbroglio: a private individual filed a case against him; a judge sentenced him to imprisonment; once convicted, he was automatically ousted from Parliament. The sense of a malicious government behind it all is largely a Congress construct. But will it succeed in putting the BJP on the backfoot in 2024?
Gandhi’s idea may have been to martyr himself for the larger cause of undermining Modi and uniting the Opposition. Certainly, his disqualification has achieved two things. One, it has generated headlines along the lines of ‘Gandhi convicted for defaming Modi’, which play out very well in the global media, creating the impression that anyone who criticises the Indian prime minister winds up in jail. Second, it has generated a ‘fear factor’ and brought leaders like Arvind Kejriwal and Mamata Banerjee, who wanted no truck with the Congress, to the barricades.
That the government-as-absolutist narrative found many takers owes to two factors: first, to the cumulative effect of a series of actions against individuals and agencies unfriendly to the current dispensation, and second, to its alacrity in ousting Gandhi both from Parliament and his official residence.
Aam Aadmi Party number two Manish Sisodia and the Trinamool Congress, Bharat Rashtra Samithi, Shiv Sena, RJD and Congress ‘parivars’, have all faced the wrath of regulatory agencies.
And when members of the Opposition feel threatened, the flag of democracy is raised. So, outrage has typically been couched in concerns over the erosion of democracy and flagrant abuse of power by the ‘tyrannical’ BJP-led government. The Opposition was less concerned when foreign-funded think-tanks inimical to the BJP suffered Income Tax raids, or even when the BBC came under scrutiny after it aired a provocative documentary against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
What’s left unsaid in all of this is the judiciary’s mandate to uphold Constitutional values, guard democracy and protect the innocent from the excesses of government. In effect, the Opposition is casting aspersions on the conduct of the judiciary in general. But Chief Justice of India Dhananjay Y Chandrachud, the 50th to hold this office, is no pushover. Indeed, he is regarded as a strong and independent CJI, so pointing a finger at him would be counter-productive.
For the Opposition, the trouble is that the government operates within the boundaries of law. It wields its enormous power with a wary eye on the statutes. It can harass — and it does — but it commits no egregious violations of civil rights. After all, it was the judge hearing the liquor scam case who saw fit to remand AAP’s Sisodia to the custody of investigative agencies. And it was a judge who convicted Gandhi — by all accounts, only after he had refused to apologise for his ‘offensive’ remarks.
The Congress ex-MP played it smart by extracting the maximum possible political momentum from his disqualification before approaching the courts for relief. Nationwide protests by workers of his party, solidarity statements from other members of the Opposition and extensive media coverage are giving the Congress more traction than it had even during the Bharat Jodo Yatra.
But how is this momentum to be sustained, after Gandhi gets his relief? The BJP is not particularly concerned about the brouhaha over the disqualification, because the public doesn’t seem to be. While this may argue a touch of hubris, there’s little doubt that by the time the 2024 general election rolls around, public focus would have shifted.
Nor is it easy for Opposition unity to endure. The moment questions of seat-sharing, ‘friendly’ contests and on-ground coordination between party workers come to the fore, the proposed coalition will fall apart. Smart politicians like Kejriwal, SP chief Akhilesh Yadav and Banerjee know all too well that a deal between party leaders is one thing and aggregating votes at the booth level is another.
Besides, every regional party wants representation in Parliament, so the ‘Congress at the centre, allies in the states’ logic no longer applies. Would Kejriwal be willing to transfer his votes to the Congress in the Lok Sabha elections? Would Akhilesh?
Nor can the results of the Karnataka elections be seen as an endorsement or rejection of the ‘democracy in danger’ red flag. The Congress is already at an advantage in the state, given the wave of anti-incumbency against the BJP. It is the Congress’ election to lose and it would take enormous effort and a big dose of luck for the BJP to turn it around.
A section of the social media brigade has suggested that the Congress has more to gain than lose from the removal of Gandhi from the scene. Perhaps an independent leader, or Priyanka Gandhi, will emerge and offer a credible challenge to the BJP. That is an unlikely scenario. In or out of Parliament, Gandhi remains the de facto chief. Hopefully, the courts will come to Gandhi’s rescue and reinstate him. More to the point, the government would do well to tell regulators that they must exercise restraint vis-a-vis Opposition leaders ahead of the general elections, and turn the discourse back to ‘vikas’ and ‘amrit kaal’.
Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author
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