Their pride is quite infectious. India’s Hindu-nationalist politicians love bragging that their country is the world’s largest democracy. They love referring to India as ‘the mother of all democracies’. Yet, they pay scant attention to the democracy-destroying deeds of Narendra Modi, their supreme leader and India’s Hindu-nationalist prime minister. Nor do they agonise over India’s ‘partly-free’ rating by Freedom House. Sweden’s V-Dem Institute branding India as an ‘electoral autocracy’ bothers them the least.
Lending credence to this rating and branding, on 23 March, Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) got Rahul Gandhi, the Congress Party leader and India’s best-known opposition face, disqualified from parliament. The shock act was carried out in great haste and formalised neither by the president nor the House Speaker. In fact, the disqualification order came from the secretariat of Lok Sabha, the lower house of Indian parliament. https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained- law/explained-law-rahuls-disqualification-after-8517591/
Video Courtesy: YouTube/ABC News (Australia)
The Debilitating Effects of Haste
The secretariat’s haste and the suspiciously-quick turn of events pre-disqualification reek of political skulduggery. In one fell sweep, Mr Modi has succeeded in creating conditions for the world to believe India’s democracy is decaying. The world has enough reasons now to trust Mr Modi’s detractors, who insist India is turning intolerant of dissent. Of late, the BJP has been showing undue haste in eliminating opposition leaders from the electoral field.
The debilitating effects of this haste is showing up in India’s dismal scores on democratic health parameters. Yet, braving all insults, India’s democracy is soldiering on, thanks to a handful of tenacious opposition politicians. They are up in arms now against the manner in which Mr Gandhi was disqualified from his parliamentary membership. They say Mr Gandhi is seen by the BJP as a major political threat to its Hindu nationalism. https://www.independent.co.uk/asia/india/rahul-gandhi- disqualification-parliament-chaos-b2308572.html
The Machiavellian Plot
Opposition politicians have a point. Mr Gandhi is fresh from his rejuvenating ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ (Unite India March). The march has been a success. Pepped up, Mr Gandhi is planning another march, from India’s easternmost state to its westernmost coast. Analysts say his rapport with grassroot party workers and general voters is improving. Thus, a resurgent Gandhi had to be eliminated from the electoral arena at any cost. Hence, the disqualification.
The plot behind Mr Gandhi’s disqualification is as Machiavellian as its motive. Mr Gandhi was convicted by a lowly district court in Gujarat, the home state of Mr Modi, on 23 March. The court ordered the disqualification of Mr Gandhi for two years, followed by a five-year bar to contest elections. Effectively, the court order ensures Mr Gandhi is eliminated from the electoral ring for seven years, if the conviction is neither suspended nor reversed. The implication: Mr Gandhi will not be able to contest the nationwide general elections in 2024. https://www.livemint.com/news/india/can-rahul- gandhi-contest-2024-general-elections-post-conviction-here-s- what-law-says-11679653877025.html
Weaponising a Comment
However, the immediate provocation to disqualify Mr Gandhi came from his vitriolic attack on how Mr Modi has allowed his industrialist pal Gautam Adani to monopolise Indian business, its infrastructure space particularly. Of late, Mr Gandhi has been spearheading his party’s anti-Modi protests and clamouring for a joint parliamentary panel to probe Mr Adani’s financial shenanigans. Roiling Mr Modi further, Mr Gandhi has been ventilating his grave grievances on foreign soils.
Desperate, Mr Modi has gone ahead to weaponise a comment made by Mr Gandhi in one of his speeches. The speech was delivered by Mr Gandhi in 2019. In that speech, Mr Gandhi had rhetorically asked why India’s financial fugitives and fraudsters have Modi as their family names. Quickly, a BJP politician, with the Modi family name, moved a district court in Gujarat against Mr Gandhi for insulting the entire Modi community. https://indianexpress.com/article/political- pulse/purnesh-modi-whose-complaint-led-to-rahul-gandhis- conviction-8514998/
Smacks of Vindictive Arbitrariness
The district magistrate has now convicted Mr Gandhi, awarding him an imprisonment of two years and a cash fine of INR 15,000. Mr Gandhi is yet to be sentenced. Waiting for none, the parliamentary secretariat disqualified Mr Gandhi at once, despite the court suspending his sentence for 30 days to enable him to secure bail and appeal against the verdict. Opposition politicians have here a sordid story to tell.
The BJP complainant had sought a stay on the trial for a year in March 2022, after the case kept crawling after 2019. He was granted the stay, no questions asked. Then, the complainant approached the court in February 2023 saying he was ready for the trial. The trial resumed on 27 February before another judge. Rest, leading up to the conviction, is now history. Politicos say Mr Gandhi’s disqualification smacks of vindictive arbitrariness. https://thewire.in/law/rahul-gandhis-conviction-in-surat-case- pushes-limits-of-defamation-law
The Three Important Questions
Mr Gandhi’s conviction raises three important questions. One, why did the complainant request for a stay on the proceedings of his own case? Two, why did the parliamentary secretariat move with undue haste to disqualify Mr Gandhi, when he had been given 30 days to appeal against the verdict? Three, is the secretariat the right authority to disqualify? As the Adani imbroglio was becoming too hot to bear, Mr Modi could have decided on Mr Gandhi’s disqualification as the only way out of the mess.
Plus, a new district magistrate was now in place. Getting curiouser, hurriedly, the new district magistrate handed Mr Gandhi the maximum permissible imprisonment of two years. Legal experts in India say the magistrate had proceeded against Mr Gandhi without an enquiry. Thus, Mr Gandhi’s conviction is flawed. Inevitably, Mr Gandhi’s disqualification, and his possible prison term (if and when sentenced), would be hugely counter-productive for Mr Modi. https://thewire.in/politics/why-rahul- gandhis-disqualification-may-be-a-turning-point
A True Blessing in Disguise
In fact, the disqualification is a political blessing in disguise for Mr Gandhi. For four reasons. One, the harshest verdict for this sort of an offence, which is par for the course for most BJP politicians, should earn tremendous goodwill for Mr Gandhi. Two, pathetically, the pre-verdict machinations are sure to backfire and show Mr Modi in poor light. Three, Mr Gandhi’s disqualification will prove to be the shock therapy a sagging Congress party needs now. https://poliphoon.com/the-coming-congress-collapse/
Four, and finally, the hasty and improper disqualification will bring India’s opposition parties, who are in disarray now, together in a rare display of political solidarity. This has already begun to happen. Sensing such disqualifications can happen to them tomorrow, leaders of India’s enfeebled opposition are fast uniting and rallying under a common banner. On 24 March, in a rare display of togetherness, leading lights of 20 opposition parties came together, vowing to fight against the anti-democratic ways of Mr Modi. https://gulfnews.com/opinion/op- eds/rahul-gandhis-disqualification-has-united-indias-opposition- 1.94772978
Mr Modi loves boasting about the vibrancy of India’s democracy. However, if his recent actions are any indication, Mr Modi comes across as a flawed democrat. His penchant for using enforcement agencies to target opposition politicians and his urge to arrogate to himself the power to appoint judges indicate India may not be a democracy for long. Enough reasons for over 1.4 billion Indians to get worried and worked up. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/prime- minister-narendra-modi-addresses-the-76th-session-of-united- nations-general-assembly-in-new-york/article36668955.ece
When India’s rulers are bent on eliminating the opposition, it is a sure sign of democracy descending into an abyss. India took nearly 100 turbulent years to secure independence from Britain to become a democracy. If India loses its democracy now, it may take many hundreds of years to rebuild. As Mr Modi gloats over his made-to-order democracy, Mr Gandhi’s parliamentary disqualification portends the arrival of a bigger storm. Yet, Mr Modi seems adamant on transforming India into a deplorable democratic disaster.