Rahul's disqualification: Democracy at stake

I Mean What I Say

By Shashi Tharoor

5 min read
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We must ask ourselves one thing, irrespective of whether we like Rahul Gandhi or not and whether we support the Congress or not: can it be good for any democracy that the principal leader of the major Opposition party is jailed and denied a voice in Parliament?

The disqualification of Rahul Gandhi from Parliament, and his jail sentence for two years, has opened a new and sorry chapter in our nation's politics, casting serious doubt on the very survival of our democracy. In an election speech in Kolar, Karnataka, in 2019, Rahul Gandhi uttered words in the course of a campaign speech that gave his enemies an excuse to act against him. After speaking about the economic travails of the nation, he said: 'Nirav Modi, Mehul Choksi, Vijay Mallya, Lalit Modi, Anil Ambani, Narendra Modi... choron ka group hai (they are a group of thieves)... They tell you they are fighting against black money, they make you stand in a line under the sun, they take money from your pockets to put in the bank, and then you come to realise that Nirav Modi stole your money and ran away. One small question, how are the names of all these thieves [in sab chor] 'Modi, Modi, Modi'?... Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi, Narendra Modi, and if you search a little more, aur bahut saare Modi niklenge [many more Modis will emerge].''

In context, it is clear he was referring to a specific group of people he considered had looted the nation's money, and in an aside he was remarking on the common names borne by three of them. You might say he didn't need to do that, but politicians can get rhetorically carried away during election speeches, and many BJP politicians have said far worse about their rivals, about minorities and others. Still, to suggest that he was implying that all Modis are thieves, when it's very clear he was speaking of three specific Modis, is a stretch.

Unfortunately, when a former BJP Minister (and current MLA) in Gujarat, Purnesh Modi, filed suit claiming that all Modis were defamed and as a Modi he had the right to file suit for defamation, his argument carried the day before a Surat judge. But here the story gets even murkier. The original judge who heard the complaint had mused aloud that there didn't seem to be much substance in it; this prompted the petitioner, Purnesh Modi, to rush off to the High Court and win a stay on his own petition, a bizarre development. Then, a full two years later and a few days after Rahul Gandhi made his now notoriously expunged speech in Parliament accusing the Prime Minister of crony capitalism, several things happened rapidly: the judge in Surat was replaced, Purnesh Modi rushed back to the High Court to get his own stay lifted, his case was revived by the new judge and in just 20-odd days, Rahul Gandhi was not just found guilty, he was awarded the maximum possible sentence of two years in jail. Conveniently enough, this maximum sentence turned out to be the minimum period required to debar an MP from Parliament, not just for two years but for a further, punitive, six. And within 24 hours of the verdict being announced, the Lok Sabha Secretariat declared that Rahul Gandhi was no longer an MP, and on the next working day he received a letter instructing him to vacate his government bungalow.

It is difficult not to smell a proverbial rat in these developments. The sequence of events certainly suggests something more than an ordinary process of law playing itself out; it seems probable that we have witnessed the unfolding of a deliberate decision, taken at the highest levels, to silence Rahul Gandhi's voice. Not just to deny him a platform in parliament, but also to put him out of action altogether by locking him up till well after the next general elections are over.

EC did not make haste to declare a by-election in Wayanad to fill Rahul Gandhi's seat | AFP

Of course an appeal is possible - he has been given thirty days to file one - and if the High Court, or the Supreme Court, should grant him a stay of conviction, even the disqualification will have to be reversed. In that case, he could return to the fray, on the streets as well as in parliament, with his image burnished as the stalwart the government tried to silence. Buoyed by public sympathy and with the enthusiastic support of Congress workers energised by the injustice meted out to him, Rahul Gandhi could prove a much bigger thorn in the BJP's flesh than before the verdict. As it is, the judgement has generated a surprising and welcome wave of Opposition unity, as regional parties traditionally opposed to the Congress in their states - AAP in Delhi, TMC in Bengal, Samajwadi in UP, BRS in Telangana, CPIM in Kerala - have come out in his support. Many have begun to feel the truth of the adage 'united we stand, divided we fall'; if they don't back Rahul now, they could be picked off one by one themselves, by a vengeful government.

If the Surat court verdict gives India a more united Opposition, it could be bad news for a ruling party that won the 2019 elections with just 37% of the vote but more than 60% of the seats. The rest of the vote went to 35 victorious parties, all represented in the current Parliament; if most of them have now found new reasons to come together and stop dividing each other's vote, the BJP might find it much harder to win a majority in 2024.

Some cynics suggest the BJP doesn't mind, and what we are seeing now is an elaborate game meant to build up Rahul Gandhi as the principal challenger, thereby turning 2024 into a 'Modi versus Rahul' election that the BJP is sure they can win. If they are right, that is Chanakyan in the extreme, but building up a major rival is also an extremely high-risk strategy for a party that's currently comfortably ahead in the polls. Since the result of the exercise so far has been to put a halo on Rahul and unite a fractiously divided Opposition, the entire episode looks like an own-goal scored by the current regime. But that too will depend on whether either the Gujarat High Court or the Supreme Court grants a stay of conviction. Fortunately, the Election Commission did not make haste to declare a by-election in Wayanad to fill Rahul Gandhi's seat, saying it would wait to see if he won a stay. The focus has now shifted to the lawyers.

As of this writing, no appeal has yet been filed and no stay granted. So while the nation awaits the next act in this drama, we must ask ourselves one thing, irrespective of whether we like Rahul Gandhi or not and whether we support the Congress or not: can it be good for any democracy that the principal leader of the major Opposition party is jailed and denied a voice in Parliament? When put that way, even several BJP voters tend to say it's not -- it's deeply damaging to democracy. The issue is no longer just about one man or one party - it's about safeguarding our democracy by granting every participant in it a level playing field.

This is what makes this matter so important for India's future. As it plays itself out, an entire nation watches, with concern and apprehension. One can only hope that democracy will prevail.

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