For a man the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dismisses as a "pappu” (a silly fellow) and perennially lambasts as “what-is-his-achievement-except-being-born-in-the-Nehru-Gandhi-family?”, the party seems to be making a lot of effort to have Rahul Gandhi silenced and disempowered.
The BJP and its proxies will argue that the ruling of a Surat court, convicting Rahul of criminal defamation and sentencing him to two years in prison for some remarks he made during the 2019 Lok Sabha election campaign in Kolar, Karnataka, has nothing to do with the executive.
However, the fact is that the conviction lays him open to disqualification as a member of Parliament. And the decision suits the BJP rather well since Rahul has proved to be a forceful speaker in the House and has persistently raised questions about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s alleged proximity to industrialist Gautam Adani whose business practices and meteoric rise have come under global scanner.
Is Rahul's Conviction and 2-Yr Jail Term Justified Under the Law?
It is for the lawyers to debate the merit or otherwise of the Surat court ruling. Some legal experts have pointed out that what Rahul said in 2019 –“How is it that all these thieves (Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi, et al) are called Modi?” – was a generic comment and cannot be actionable under the criminal defamation law which pertains to remarks directed against a particular person.
But multiple persons belonging to the BJP, and bearing the surname of ‘Modi’, had filed cases of criminal defamation against Rahul soon after he made that remark. And the Surat court, in its wisdom, decided to not only hold him guilty of the offence, but also award him the maximum punishment permissible under the law, which at once makes Rahul face disqualification as the MP from Wayanad, Kerala.
The Supreme Court judgment in the Lily Thomas vs the Union of India, 2013, lays down that any MP convicted and sentenced to two or more years’ jail term is to be disqualified. Ironically, when the UPA government, headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, sought to bring an ordinance to give some leeway to such convicted MPs, it was Rahul who famously tore up the ordinance at a press conference, saying that the Congress would make no compromises with corruption.
It does seem absurd and excessive to sentence a person to a two-year jail term — not for corruption, not for dodgy business practices, not for fleeing the country with billions of rupees of tax-payers' money — but for some verbal barbs made against the opposing political party in the heat and dust of the election trail. More so, since virulent hate speech on the part of some political leaders often goes unpunished and cases of communal incitement are dropped when these worthy individuals assume high political office, such as that of a chief minister of a state.
BJP’s Unsparing Anti-Rahul Campaign Shows Govt Can’t Take Criticism
Be that as it may, in recent weeks, the BJP has been relentlessly attacking Rahul Gandhi for whatever he says, and he does have to say a lot about not only the overall performance of the ruling party — ballooning inflation, unemployment, and so on — but also the way the space for civil liberties seems to be narrowing under its watch.
Parts of Rahul’s stinging speech in Parliament on 7 February, attacking Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and accusing the government of cronyism, facilitating the extraordinary expansion of Adani’s business interests, were expunged. Which means that those parts of the speech would be permanently removed from Parliament’s records and no media would be able to report on it. What’s more, a privilege motion was brought against Rahul for making a “misleading, derogatory, unparliamentary and incriminatory” statement that was said to be a reflection on the Prime Minister.
Such moves are, of course, part of the cut and thrust of the parliamentary process, although the intent here was clearly to stifle the words of a political leader who is raising critical questions about the ruling dispensation’s links with a controversial industrialist — questions which the government has refused to examine by setting up a joint parliamentary committee.
And the barrage of attacks against Rahul Gandhi has continued. Earlier this month, the BJP erupted into paroxysms of outrage after Rahul spoke about the weakening of democratic institutions in India at Cambridge University, the British Parliament, and elsewhere in the UK. He was roundly slammed for “seeking foreign intervention in India’s internal affairs” — a blatant falsehood, because Rahul had explicitly stated that the problem was India’s own, but that the world ought to be aware of it. Yet his remarks touched such a raw nerve that the Parliament was stalled for two days with protests from treasury benches and demands that Rahul issue an apology for the statements he made in the UK.
Why Rahul Gandhi Is a Threat to the BJP
Why does the BJP not lose a single chance to vilify Rahul Gandhi if he is as irrelevant, as much of a non-challenge to the Modi magic that the party claims he is?
Truth is, Rahul is increasingly being seen and heard. The process kicked off with the four-month-long Bharat Jodo Yatra, the Congress leader’s 3500km plus walkathon and outreach programme that wound its way from Kanyakumari to Kashmir. Many who voted for Modi and the BJP in 2014, now acknowledge his maturity as a political leader, his sincerity and commitment.
Whether the huge response to the Yatra, or people’s growing attentiveness to what he has to say will translate into votes for the Congress in 2024, is debatable. However, the very fact that whatever Rahul says and does, elicits such prickliness and extreme reactions from the BJP indicates that the party and its leadership perceive him to be a potential threat, a potential kernel around which an Opposition front could crystallise before the general elections next year. Hence, it would not be a wild speculation if one were to assume that the BJP is jubilant that Rahul may soon cease to be an MP and stripped of a voice inside the Parliament.
That would not make Rahul go away, though. In a television debate this week, it was amusing to hear a BJP leader say that just because some leaders of the Opposition like Arvind Kejriwal and others were speaking in support of Rahul Gandhi on his conviction, it did not mean that they would join hands with the Congress before the Lok Sabha elections.
Perhaps not. But all Opposition parties should note that this is the BJP’s biggest fear, this is the BJP’s potential Achilles heel. A united Opposition could overturn the electoral math and vanquish the BJP. Rahul and his party, the Congress, have a pan-India presence. On paper, the Congress could be a feasible fulcrum around which the Opposition could come together before 2024. The BJP is counting on the fact that petty rivalries and ambitions amongst disparate Opposition parties will prevent that from happening.
But even imponderables happen at times, and the unlikeliest political alliances come to pass. Therein lies the danger that Rahul poses to the BJP. And therein lies the ruling party’s tireless efforts to malign him and clip his wings.
(Shuma Raha is a journalist and author. She tweets @ShumaRaha. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)