Rahul Gandhi may never have been so important as in the moment of his presumed political annihilation.
He was expelled from the lower house of India’s parliament 24 hours after his conviction for defamation on account of a remark implying Prime Minister Narendra Modi was a criminal.
Despite having led India’s main opposition Congress Party in 2019 to its second successive poor showing in national polls, Mr Gandhi may now become a touchstone for free expression in the world’s largest democracy.
Will he? Should he?
Let’s start with this comment in The Guardian by political researcher Asim Ali. Expressing puzzlement at the focus of Mr Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party on Mr Gandhi, Mr Ali said: “I can’t work out what the strategy is because this may benefit Rahul and the Congress. They [Congress] will say it shows the BJP is insecure about Rahul and that it merely validates what he has been saying about how this government will not allow any criticism of Modi or itself.”
And here’s Delhi-based commentator Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, also quoted in The Guardian piece, via Agence France-Presse. He said Mr Gandhi’s conviction and speedy disqualification as an MP showed the BJP “does not want Rahul Gandhi in parliament”.
One might reasonably ask why?
Mr Gandhi’s Congress Party is in a dire state, unable to speak to India with the authority of a government-in-waiting. For Indians who know the Gandhi family from its long decades in public life, successive governments led by the Gandhi-supervised Congress were marked by corruption and mismanagement.
Add to that the powerful culture wars successfully waged by the BJP. They address a deep, aching wound within the Indian soul – partition and the creation of a separate Muslim state, Pakistan. The BJP’s narrative suggests India can be made whole again by relying on the native genius of the people that remain within India’s borders so long as they believe in the larger idea of solidarity with purpose.
But the purpose of the BJP’s mission has long been suspect, seeming too exclusivist, too anti-minority and against the very traditions of Indian thought and practice. Click here for my piece in The New European on the transnational political effect of the Hindu nationalist worldview. (A word document of the piece is below, if you can’t access it.)
Weak though they are, Congress and Rahul Gandhi are a reminder of how much India has diverged from the way it used to be.
Mr Gandhi has had recent successes. He has gained some prominence after a more than 4,000-km Bharat Jodo Yatra (“Unite India March”). He has asked trenchant questions in parliament about Mr Modi’s connections to controversial Gujarati billionaire Gautam Adani. These were deemed so politically sensitive his comments were expunged from the parliamentary record, along with supporting materials that included photos of Mr Modi and Mr Adani together. And earlier this month, Mr Gandhi made a trip to the UK, and spoke at length at Cambridge University and in London about the state of politics in India. The BJP subsequently accused Mr Gandhi of “insulting” India on foreign soil.
It’s reasonable to say Mr Gandhi is a horsefly bite on the flank of the Modi’s India and the BJP is cleansing the affected area with the supposed antiseptic of legal rulings.