Rahul Gandhi’s expulsion from Parliament leaves the Indian National Congress party little time to recover ahead of next year’s national elections.

One hallmark of a parliamentary democracy is a loyal opposition: Non-governing parties are not deemed traitorous adversaries but rather those with reasonable political and ideological differences from the ruling party. The opposition is “loyal” to the source of the government’s power, such as the constitution. India has upheld this principle for seven decades—regardless of which party was in office. But today, that vital symbol of democracy may be in question in New Delhi. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems intent on undermining key members of the opposition through any legal means at its disposal.

The recent conviction of lawmaker and former Indian National Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi underscores this trend and puts India’s democracy at risk. At a campaign rally in 2019, Gandhi said, “Why do all these thieves have Modi as their surname? Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi, Narendra Modi.” Nirav Modi was a high-flying diamond merchant charged with bank fraud. Lalit Modi was the head of the lucrative Indian Premier League cricket franchise who received a lifetime ban from the country’s cricket board for “misconduct and indiscipline.” Narendra Modi, of course, is the prime minister of India, who was reelected to a second term the same year Gandhi made his comments.

Last month, Gandhi was disqualified from Parliament and sentenced to two years in prison for defamation over the remarks. The verdict came from a regional court in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, where a local BJP politician, Purnesh Modi, had lodged the case four years ago on the grounds that Gandhi had defamed anyone with the last name Modi. Gandhi was granted bail and has appealed the verdict, with an initial hearing set for April 13. The outcome will have significant consequences: If Gandhi’s conviction is upheld, India’s principal opposition party will be left rudderless heading into national elections next year.

Why did a BJP politician sue Gandhi on the grounds of defamation in the first place, and why did the judge rule in favor of the plaintiff? Purnesh Modi was not personally defamed. (The name Modi is common in Gujarat, and it technically signifies membership in a lower caste.) However, Gandhi had recently raised his political stature with a nationwide trek he called the Unite India march. Whether the march will translate into electoral success remains an open question, but some commentators suggested it could revive the ailing Congress party’s fortunes. The timing of Gandhi’s conviction—four years after the case was filed—raises questions about potential political bias within parts of India’s judiciary.

Given the renewed focus on Gandhi, BJP officials may have sought to diminish his newfound luster. India’s colonial-era defamation laws are sweeping, making them an easy pathway to trap a political opponent in a legal knot. And it seems the judgment was subject to possible political considerations. Although there is no evidence the BJP leaned on the judge to issue the verdict, it is worth noting that Gandhi received the maximum penalty under the law—and his conviction happens to meet the minimum grounds for disqualification from Parliament.

The Gandhi family has long dominated the Congress party, making Gandhi a target ahead of national elections even though he has not been the party’s formal leader since 2019. His mother, Sonia Gandhi, has held a near stranglehold on the party for a few decades and expended considerable effort in boosting her son as her heir apparent. In turn, the party has failed to coalesce around an alternative de facto leader despite Gandhi’s failure to bring Congress electoral success. Politician and former U.N. official Shashi Tharoor didn’t gain much traction last year when he ran for the party presidency. Party stalwarts instead rallied around now-octogenarian lawmaker Mallikarjun Kharge, seen as close to Sonia Gandhi. Shortly after Kharge assumed leadership, a senior Congress politician said Gandhi remained the party’s preferred candidate for prime minister.

This is hardly the first time the BJP government has sought to harass a prominent opposition politician. Among other cases, it has recently instituted judicial proceedings against Manish Sisodia, a former deputy chief minister of New Delhi, on questionable charges related to the implementation of a now-scrapped excise policy. But Gandhi’s disqualification from Parliament represents a dramatic escalation in the ruling party’s efforts to cow the opposition ahead of elections in 2024. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Modi and the BJP are expected to sweep the polls next year, and the ruling party appears intent on ensuring that Gandhi doesn’t have the slightest opportunity to capitalize on his newfound popularity. Unfortunately, the Congress party’s near-complete dependence on Gandhi has placed the party in an untenable position.

It’s far from clear who can step up to the plate to lead the party in Gandhi’s absence. It’s possible his sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, may try to take charge on his behalf; she is not a member of Parliament but has campaigned for Congress in the past. Gandhi can still hold political rallies as long as he remains free on bail. But Congress has a larger problem: Since the party’s defeat in the 2019 elections, it has failed to put forward a viable set of alternative policies—contenting itself with taking pot shots at Modi instead. If Gandhi loses his appeal, the party would likely focus its energy on holding public protests and appealing the Indian Supreme Court to stay the judgment. Meanwhile, elections loom.

With Gandhi’s conviction and disqualification from Parliament, it seems that the BJP has delivered the Congress party a coup de grâce. Short of some miraculous strategy, the once-powerful opposition party’s fate in next year’s elections is all but sealed. The BJP’s assault on the opposition raises profound questions about the future of India’s democracy. If a prominent leader of the opposition can be removed from Parliament on such flimsy legal pretext, the entire democratic state may rest on shaky foundations.

Journalists and experts have increasingly raised questions about the independence of India’s judiciary in recent years. It’s far from certain that Gandhi’s appeal to a higher court will result in a dismissal of the charges against him. If it doesn’t, it’s hard to imagine that a mass protest movement would mobilize in response. The Congress party is organizationally weak, and its ability to galvanize a large segment of the population toward a mass movement is lacking. More to the point, despite the crowds that Gandhi attracted during his Unite India march, there has been no mass groundswell of anger following his conviction in Gujarat. The Congress party scion and India’s democracy may be entering the twilight together.

Sumit Ganguly is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University Bloomington. Courtesy Foreign Policy



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