Did Modi kill India's democracy by expelling its opposition leader from Parliament?
This is not the result of an assassination, but a slow growing cancer infecting every institution of India.
Rahul Gandhi, India’s leading opposition figure, was disqualified from his elected position in the Lok Sabha (lower house of the Indian parliament). The disqualification was a result of his conviction for criminal defamation, which carries a two-year sentence. And under India’s Constitution and election laws, a member of legislature can be disqualified from holding office upon conviction that imposes at least two years of imprisonment.
Following the disqualification, Indian democracy has been declared dead by national and international media. But democracy in India wasn’t assassinated by Modi, as the pundits are claiming. India’s situation is more a slow growing cancer that is infecting everything. India’s illiberal laws, a biased judicial decision and the Indian Supreme Court’s flawed guidelines on legislative disqualification, created a situation ripe for political opportunism. Consequently, Om Birla, the partisan speaker of the Lok Sabha, from the ruling BJP, showed remarkable haste in issuing the disqualification notice.
Ordinary Indians grapple daily with the challenges posed by the nation’s deficient legal, judicial and executive systems. Now, India’s most prominent opposition leader, hailing from its most distinguished political dynasty, has become the latest casualty of these institutional shortcomings.
I explain the criminal defamation charges, the punishment, the rules that led to Gandhi’s disqualification from parliament, and how the disqualification impacts Modi and Gandhi.
Wait, What Exactly Happened?
During his 2019 campaign for parliamentary elections, Rahul Gandhi delivered a speech in Kolar, Karnataka on April 13, 2019. He said,
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. Rs 35,000 crore out of your pockets and into his ... One small question, how are the names of all these thieves ‘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).
Purnesh Modi is a three-time MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly) from Surat West in Gujarat. A member of the BJP and a fan of Narendra Modi, he has often compared his personal journey as a tea seller to the prime minister’s early years. He, along with others with the surname Modi, also belongs to an OBC (Other Backward Class). He filed a complaint against Gandhi under Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalize and penalize defamation. He claimed that Gandhi humiliated and defamed persons with the Modi surname.
Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification came a day after Chief Judicial Magistrate H.H. Varma penned the 168-page judgment in Gujarati convicting Gandhi of criminal defamation. And yes, criminal defamation is still a thing in India, carrying a prison sentence.
The main issue was that in his speech, along with absconding money launderers and criminals Lalit Modi and Nirav Modi, Gandhi likened PM Narendra Modi, and others with the surname Modi, to “thieves.” Chief Judicial Magistrate H.H. Varma held that the accused referred to the surname of PM Narendra Modi “to satisfy his political greed and insulted and defamed 13 crore [1.3 million] people living in the whole of India having the surname ‘Modi.’”
It’s a badly reasoned (if one can even call it that) judgement based on an illiberal law and likely to be overturned on appeal. The Gujarat magistrate, where the BJP has strong influence and Modi served as chief minister, handed down the maximum sentence to Rahul Gandhi, seemingly motivated by political reasons.
Criminal Defamation in India
Defamation (technically, libel) was criminalized in English law to preserve public order. In the 18th and 19th century it wasn’t uncommon for the defamed to challenge the defamer to a duel to protect their honor/reputation. This disrupted public order compelling state intervention through criminal prosecution. Criminal defamation provided the victim with peaceful means to secure punishment of their defamer instead of “resorting to personal violence to obtain revenge.”
The criminal defamation provisions in India are detailed in Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code (1860), famously codified by Macaulay, which India inherited from its colonial masters and retained for over 75 years.
In India, both an individual and organization can file a criminal or civil suit against defamation. Like civil defamation, there are a number of exceptions to criminal defamation—like statements that are true, made in public interest, and most relevant in this case, about the public conduct of a public servant, made in good faith and so on. But under Section 499, a prima facie offense of defamation is made out with the mere existence of a defamatory statement. The exceptions are raised and evaluated later during the trial. Consequently, even filing a nonsensical case, that won’t lead to a conviction, can tie up the accused in court for years, given the speed and pendency in Indian courts. Criminal defamation is weaponized in India because of this procedural oddity.
It’s been misused against journalists, publishers, whistleblowers, activists, etc., by people across all political parties, companies and individuals. It stifles speech even when it doesn’t lead to conviction because the threshold and therefore cost of filing frivolous and malicious suits is low, and the cost of defending the speech is high. Criminal defamation should be repealed; it has no place in a democratic country like India. But India has plenty of illiberal laws that have survived, and have even been strengthened, under democratic rule.
Usually, in successful convictions, a statement harms the reputation/stature of the aggrieved individual mentioned in the statement. But Rahul Gandhi’s case is different.
Purnesh Modi v. Rahul Gandhi
This case is really odd because none of the three people specifically named in Rahul Gandhi’s speech—Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi, Narendra Modi—filed the defamation suit. It was filed by Purnesh Modi, a state-level legislator with no national importance.
Lalit, Nirav and Narendra Modi were unlikely to succeed even if they had filed the complaint.
In the case of Lalit Modi and Nirav Modi, truth as a defense would apply. Lalit Modi was charged with serious misconduct and rigging cricket cash cow, Indian Premier League auctions. He allegedly profited in the hundreds of millions and fled India in the face of tax evasion and money laundering charges. The Indian government is working with Interpol and looking at extradition options from the U.K. where he is currently based. Nirav Modi defrauded the state-owned Punjab National Bank of billions of rupees and is a fugitive in the U.K., which honored India’s extradition request. But he has not yet been extradited for health reasons. Both “stole” public funds from public institutions. The government has already made that case to other governments and criminal agencies while trying to extradite them.
On Narendra Modi, there is even less of a case. Both Gandhi and Modi have called each other a “thief” in their political speeches. This is in the context of corruption and public money benefiting cronies. When irregularities were exposed in a major defense deal with Rafale, Rahul Gandhi led a campaign with the slogan “Chowkidar Chor Hai,” which translates to “the watchman is actually a thief.” Modi had fought his 2014 election campaign on a clean and corruption-free record attacking then-incumbent Manmohan Singh’s government embroiled in corruption scams. In response to Gandhi, now as prime minister, Modi quipped, “chor chowkidaar ko daante” [a twist on ulta chor kotwaal ko daante], which translates to “the thief is scolding the watchman.”
None of this was particularly statesman-like but it also wasn’t out of the ordinary. Corruption and misuse of public money is routinely referred to as theft, and corrupt politicians as thieves, in Indian (especially Hindi) discourse. Prime minister Modi is a public servant and his conduct on a public matter (defense deal) was brought up in the context of other corruption scandals by Gandhi on a campaign trail. It should qualify for the public servant exception in Modi’s case.
But Lalit Modi, Nirav Modi and Narendra Modi never filed the defamation suit.
Back to the aggrieved Purnesh Modi. If the question is one of defamation against prominent people named Modi, Purnesh Modi didn’t make the cut before this conviction against Rahul Gandhi. The speech in question was made in Karnataka, not Gujarat, where Purnesh Modi is a state legislator. Obscure Kenyan cricketers of Gujarati origin, like Hitesh Modi, would rank higher than Purnesh Modi in recall, and salience in Indian public consciousness, when naming and ranking prominent Modis.
Under any sane legal system, Purnesh Modi won’t have standing. But in India, Section 199(1) of Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 allows “some aggrieved person” to make a criminal defamation complaint, where the “aggrieved person” may not be the defamed person. Not only is criminal defamation bad law, relaxed procedure for standing in defamation opens the door to use frivolous lawsuits to stifle speech.
Also, can entire communities be defamed? In India there is the added complexity of casteism and casteist slurs in India with the intention of defaming members from disenfranchised groups. These slurs have been historically weaponized against Dalit and tribal groups, now a crime under Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. Modi, like many other last names in India, is also a sub-caste. It translates to “grocer” in Gujarati, and by trade they run anything ranging from small local mom-and-pop stores and tea stalls to major conglomerates. Incidentally Gujarati Gandhis also belong to the same sub-caste (though it doesn’t apply to Rahul Gandhi whose ancestry is Kashmiri Brahmin, Parsi and Italian). And though the erstwhile trader caste Modi is now part of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in Gujarat since the ’90s, it is not a protected group when it comes to casteist hate speech under Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. Not that Rahul Gandhi’s statements qualify as casteist. The context was clear and the malice and intent were missing.
It’s plenty clear from the context of Rahul Gandhi’s statements that he wasn’t calling all grocers or traders thieves—only attacking the more powerful crony capitalists in India (some of whom were named Modi) and the prime minister for running a cronyist and corrupt government. Gandhi has made similar statements against the Ambanis and more recently against Adani and Gujarati businessmen’s closeness to the prime minister.
Narendra Modi is more likely to get in trouble for propagating the worst forms of casteism and slurs against the Valmiki community. In his book “Karmayog,” he qualifies the Valmikis’ centuries-old caste-based vocation—of manually cleaning toilets—as an “experience in spirituality.” Manual scavenging is a practice so casteist and perverse in India, it was banned by parliament because members of society forced these caste members to only engage in manual scavenging and tagged them untouchable to keep them from other professions.
All of this is moot because the court clarified that the complaint was not a public one, but filed due to the “personal, physical, mental and social trauma suffered by the complainant [Purnesh Modi]” because of the defamatory words used by Gandhi. Because of his words “people with the Modi surname were defamed and looked down upon in society.” This is also bizarre, because the main question in criminal defamation is not just personal trauma, but the loss of reputation. And Purnesh Modi cannot show any loss of reputation. He won the Surat West constituency in 2022 (after Gandhi’s remarks) with a slightly higher vote share than when he won the same constituency in 2017! His Congress opponent in 2022 (Patwa) received a lower vote share in 2022 than his opponent in 2017 (Patel). He is totally irrelevant in national politics and not embroiled in any corruption charges or scams that Gandhi was referring to. Until he filed and won the defamation case, I doubt if in a country of over 1.4 billion, more than 100 people named Purnesh Modi in the top 10 Modis defamed by Gandhi’s statement.
The politically motivated part in this judgment is that Magistrate Varma went for the highest sentence: two years imprisonment and Rs. 15,000 fine. And two years is the minimum sentence for disqualification from parliament. The judgment clarified that Varma went for the highest sentence allowed because reduced punishment for Rahul Gandhi, a member of parliament, would send out the wrong message.
Any sane and noncorrupt judge should have acquitted Gandhi, and on appeal, any sane and noncorrupt judge at the high court will throw the conviction out.
Disqualification of Gandhi From Parliament
This brings us to the main question of “death of democracy” due to his disqualification from parliament.
The Indian Constitution outlines the criteria for eligibility and disqualification for lawmakers in Articles 102(1)(e) (for parliamentarians) and 191(1)(e) (for state legislators). The main law governing this is the Representation of the People Act, 1951. According to Section 8(3), legislators are disqualified if they are convicted of a crime and receive at least two years in prison. This disqualification lasts for six years after their release.
Section 8(3) of the Act applies to candidates eligible and running for state or national office, while Section 8(4) pertains to current legislators. Under the original Section 8(4), they can stay in office for three months after conviction, or until their appeal is settled if filed within that period.
Seems harsh? Why does India have such harsh rules disbarring those convicted from political office?
Activists have long felt that this is not a strong enough provision to keep criminals out of legislatures. In the ’40s and ’50s, lots of parliamentarians had served prison sentences, but for agitating against the British, usually convicted for sedition. In post-independent India, by the ’90s, there was a serious problem of criminals elected to state legislatures and parliament, using their political power to avoid convictions. And the crimes are not merely speech, defamation or corruption. One in five members of parliament face serious criminal charges like kidnapping, intimidation, extortion, murder, etc. The numbers are worse in state legislatures.
Because elected legislators are often charged with crimes and don’t have the right incentives to prevent criminals from holding elected office, activists, lawyers and citizens started approaching the very activist Indian Supreme Court to do something about criminality in politics. An important first step was the disclosure of all pending criminal cases and all assets before standing for elections. But that information and disclosure alone didn’t make much of a difference, because it didn’t change the reasons for the demand and supply of the criminal-turned-politician. In India, the demand for criminals as politicians as well as the supply of criminals standing for elections is explained by weak state capacity, campaign finance laws, political uncertainty and coethnic voting, in Milan Vaishnav’s excellent book “When Crime Pays.”
In 2005, a Kerala-based lawyer Lily Thomas and NGO Lok Prahari filed a public interest litigation challenging the constitutionality of Section 8(4) which protected convicted legislators from disqualification on account of their appeals pending before the higher courts. India’s court pendency is now infamous, and sometimes it takes decades to resolve a criminal case, and when the case is pending appeal for years, criminals continue to occupy elected positions.
In 2013, in Lily Thomas v. Union of India the Supreme Court declared Section 8(4)—allowing three months to convicted sitting legislatures before disqualification—unconstitutional. Their reasoning was that disqualifications for prospective and sitting members must be the same. If someone running for state or parliamentary seat is convicted of a criminal offence and sentenced to over two years, and the election is within three months, and the court has not yet set aside the conviction or taken on the appeal, then the individual is disqualified immediately. The court’s argument was that allowing an already elected sitting legislator the benefit of three months before disqualification is differential treatment, violating equal protection under Article 14.
The persons falling in the two groups (those who could run for office versus elected legislators) are well defined and determinable groups. Such classification cannot be said to be unreasonable. There are plenty of reasons elected officials are reasonably classified as a different group, well established in law. Privileging parliamentary speech is one such example.
The effect of Lily Thomas was that upon conviction, sitting legislators will be disqualified immediately without being given the three months’ window pending appeal provided under Section 8(4) of the RPA.
Lily Thomas is very poorly reasoned, and weakens procedural safeguards against political opportunism in parliament. The court wanted a quick fix for criminals in legislature without really addressing the root cause—India’s poor state capacity, long pendency in the judiciary and over-criminalization of the most basic economic and political actions. It’s a complicated problem for which all three branches of government are to blame.
India’s laws are illiberal, criminalizing everything from criminal defamation to tree cutting (which carries a two year sentence in Haryana and Punjab or a two- to four-year sentence in Bihar). The maximum sentences for these offenses, turned into crimes by the Indian legal system, is enough to invoke disqualification as a legislator.
Of the 1,536 laws that govern doing business in India, more than half carry imprisonment clauses. Of the 69,233 compliances that businesses have to follow, 37.8 percent (or almost two out of every five) carry imprisonment clauses. More than half the clauses requiring imprisonment carry a sentence of at least one year.
India’s judiciary is so slow, the pendency is misused by criminals of all parties and type. While a case is under appeal for years, criminals can occupy elected positions.
India’s executive, on the other hand, is overreaching, and trigger happy, throwing the book at individuals and businesses in an arbitrary way, either to extract rents and bribes, or to act “tough on corruption.” It is particularly malicious in using these rules to punish those in opposition. So the rule to wait for appeal before disqualification of a legislator is common sense and good procedure.
And this is why Lily Thomas is bad law. In their obsession with outcomes—fewer convicted criminals in the legislative branch—the Supreme Court gave a procedurally idiotic solution, which opens the door for abuse against the opposition members in parliament and state legislatures.
In its aftermath in 2013, three members of parliament—Lalu Prasad Yadav (RJD), Jagdish Sharma (JD (U)) and Rasheed Masood (INC)—who were members of coalition parties forming Manmohan Singh’s government were disqualified on account of their respective convictions for corruption and misuse of public money.
Then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, one of India’s top economists who understood a thing or two about bad incentives, and his government tried to bring in an ordinance to overrule this procedurally problematic aspect of Lily Thomas. But he was criticized for using an ordinance to protect its allies. Ironically, Rahul Gandhi opposed his own government and prime minister, and didn’t allow the ordinance to go through, because he was also trying to signal cleaner politics without criminality in the run up to the 2014 election. The ordinance was withdrawn. Lily Thomas continued to be the law governing the matter. And misunderstanding the consequences of bad procedure by Gandhi is one reason for his disqualification.
However, if Rahul Gandhi’s case is accepted for appeal at the high court, then until it is resolved, Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification will be set aside. This is because the moment the case is under appeal at a higher court, nothing stops him or another candidate with a conviction under appeal from standing for election for the exact same parliamentary seat from which he was disqualified too quickly.
Since the Lily Thomas judgment, T.M. Selvaganapathy was convicted and sentenced to over two years, and he resigned from his seat in the Rajya Sabha. And the only instance since 2013 disqualifications that the Lily Thomas rule was invoked in parliament was for Azam Khan, disqualified without the benefit of the 90 days. He was convicted for hate speech and has over five dozen ongoing criminal cases against him in various courts.
There have been more disqualifications of MLAs in state legislatures. Enos Ekka and the late Kamal Kishore Bhagat(MLAs in Jharkhand), and Babanrao Gholap and Suresh Halwankar (MLAs in Maharashtra) were disqualified upon conviction. Another high-profile disqualification of an opposition party leader and state chief minister would have been J. Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu, but she fell ill and died shortly during the pendency of her appeal which subsequently failed.
The Speed of Disqualification
The swift disqualification of Rahul Gandhi reveals a clear effort by the Modi government to target him. This outcome has been facilitated by restrictive laws, convoluted procedures and an excessively activist judiciary, all exploited by BJP members.
[Inserted for clarification]: Though the disqualification is specified by Lily Thomas, some authority, which is not the court, has to issue the disqualification notice. This is done by the Lok Sabha Secretariat, coming from the speaker of the Lok Sabha.
The exact timeframe for disqualification is unspecified. The speaker of the house, who holds discretionary power in this matter, would usually wait a few days before initiating disqualification proceedings. The court held that it has to be brought within 90 days, otherwise the rule laid down in Lily Thomas would be moot.
A fair-minded speaker would pause a few days after a conviction to assess the situation, allowing time for the convicted legislator to consider resignation or appeal. Acting too quickly risks wasting the house’s time if the higher court accepts the appeal shortly after disqualification.
But the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Om Birla, has quite deliberately made haste in the disqualification. He is a member of the BJP, and it is hard to argue that this wasn’t politically motivated. Unlike most other convictions, on corruption, serious crimes like rape, kidnapping, assault, extortion, murder, etc., it is clear that the case against Rahul Gandhi is flimsy and about punishing speech. Not just speech against the office of the prime minister or the government but against the image of Narendra Modi. Whether Birla is a sycophant trying to please Dear Leader, or the directive came from the BJP leadership, and therefore Modi, is unclear. But either way, it is a partisan disqualification, especially in its speed. Om Birla is not exactly known for his efficient running of the Lok Sabha.
Everyone, including the Supreme Court, knows this, and is worried about it. The most ridiculous aspect of Lily Thomas, and the overall functioning of the Supreme Court, is that the court has been separately considering the powers of the speaker of union and state legislatures because it thinks that speakers are partisan, have bad political incentives and bring bad disqualification proceedings!
Will Gandhi’s Conviction Hurt Modi?
The weird thing about the entire case is that few remembered Modi had been called a thief before this conviction; if they did remember, it wasn’t salient in the current national discourse. Now EVERYONE across the world knows it. If the loss of reputation was the real worry, then I am afraid that both Purnesh Modi and Narendra Modi have fallen prey to the Streisand effect.
The Streisand effect refers to the unintended result of trying to censor information, only to end up publicizing it more widely. This typically occurs on the internet, where controlling content is difficult. In 2003, Barbara Streisand sued the California Coastal Records Project for violating her privacy by displaying a photo of her Malibu mansion. Before the lawsuit, the photo had only been downloaded six times, but afterward, over 400,000 people visited the website, and the image spread widely online before it was removed by court order.
Modi, because his image looms so large, and he has carefully cultivated that image for a decade, is a prime candidate for the Streisand effect. We saw this a few months ago when a BBC documentary “India: The Modi Question,” focused on Modi’s role during Hindu-Muslim riots that tore through the state of Gujarat in 2002, when he was its chief minister. For most of us who were in India, reading papers/watching news at the time, this is old news. Indians on all sides of the communal riots question have adjusted to this reality. Since 2014 when Modi became the prime minister, other than the occasional op-ed/column or discussion on the anniversary of Godhra, what happened in 2002 in Gujarat is not a hot topic of discussion. That is, until the Modi government banned the BBC documentary from getting screened in India. An entire generation that was too young to remember the events of 2002 was clamoring to watch the documentary online. Modi’s ban completely backfired. The documentary has been viewed online and the government couldn’t do much to stop it.
The defamation case against Rahul Gandhi is definitely not about protecting Modi’s reputation. No one thinks he is a thief. Currently he has the highest approval ratings of any elected leader in the world—78%. Even issues that affect other BJP leaders or his close associates like Adani don’t impact him adversely. India has not had such a popular prime minister since Nehru.
So the defamation case, and the conviction, with the maximum sentence was about getting Rahul Gandhi out of politics. But it also goes against the image Modi is trying to portray—of India as a vibrant and robust democracy and a country with a functional rule of law and open for business. Recently, Gandhi was trolled by the BJP and its supporters for calling India undemocratic and the Modi government illiberal in a speech at Cambridge in the U.K. Modi just proved Gandhi right.
And in targeting Rahul Gandhi in the run up to the election might also energize the opposition, increasingly getting embroiled in criminal charges brought by the Modi government’s enforcement directorate. After Gandhi’s disqualification, 14 political parties jointly petitioned the Supreme Court, to set guidelines to limit the “arbitrary” actions by investigating agencies of the executive, currently weaponized against opposition politicians.
Will the Conviction and Disqualification Hurt Rahul Gandhi?
Rahul Gandhi has everything to gain and little to lose from this conviction and disqualification. If the conviction is upheld by the High Court and Supreme Court, then Gandhi is disbarred from running for office for six years. This method of knocking out the opposition even before an electoral contest is the goal of the BJP.
Rahul Gandhi comes from a political lineage. He has excellent examples in his family, on both sides of speaking against the government—those who have been in prison for months and years for speaking against the government, and also those who suffered electorally for punishing the opposition and curbing free speech. In fact, he is not even the most prominent member in his own family to be disqualified from parliament. In 1975 a court ruling declared his grandmother Indira Gandhi’s election to the Lok Sabha void, and barred her from contesting for six years upon conviction for corruption and election malpractice.
Rahul Gandhi’s great-great grandfather Motilal Nehru was one of the most important members of the Indian National Congress, and served twice as its president (1919, 1928). He chaired the committee that wrote the first constitutional document written entirely by Indians—which had robust protections for free speech. In 1921, he joined Gandhi’s noncooperation movement and both he and his son, Jawaharlal Nehru, were arrested and sent to prison. Motilal’s wife, and Jawaharlal’s mother, Swarup Rani, was an important foot soldier in the civil disobedience movement, recruiting and leading women. She was famously injured during a lathi charge for making salt and participating in the salt march, after all the men were arrested.
Rahul Gandhi’s great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, served over nine years in prison for his participation in the Indian nationalist movement and usually on sedition charges. Rahul Gandhi’s grandparents Feroze Gandhi and Indira Gandhi, met and bonded during the agitations against the British, and were arrested on the same day in 1942. Indira Gandhi served for eight months, Feroze Gandhi served more time in the ’40s. Both Feroze Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were members of the Constituent Assembly that wrote the document guaranteeing individual rights.
Though Indira Gandhi briefly went to prison for agitation against the colonial government, she turned dictator when she came to power. In the 1971 election to parliament, her main opponent, Raj Narain, a Gandhian socialist from the Samyukta Socialist Party in Rae Bareilly, accused her of election malpractice. Judge Jagmohan Lal Sinha found Indira Gandhi guilty - for using the services of her election agent Yashpal Kapoor while he was still in government employment and for obtaining assistance of state government officials, the district magistrate, the superintendent of police, etc., for her campaign speeches in Rae Bareli.
Sinha declared Gandhi’s election to the Lok Sabha void. She was also barred from holding an elective post for the next six years. To ensure a smooth transition the functioning of the government, Sinha unconditionally stayed the judgement for 20 days and the Supreme Court, granted a conditional stay on the verdict allowing her to address parliament, but barring participating and voting in the Lok Sabha.
While her appeal was pending at the Supreme Court, and under immense pressure from the opposition and some senior members of her party to resign, Gandhi issued an ordinance on the evening of June 25, declaring a state of internal Emergency. For the first time in the Indian republic, elections, constitutional rights and civil liberties were suspended, while she ruled by decree for 22 months. Her first order after the declaration of Emergency was to arrest leading members of the opposition.
When Indira Gandhi announced elections after the Emergency, her party faced a stunning loss, including her own constituency. Those who agitated against her, and were locked up during the Emergency, found themselves in parliament forming the government in 1977.
Rahul Gandhi need not look outside his family for lessons on convictions for speaking against the government. Every member of his family that went to jail for speech against the government has been rewarded by the party and the voters.
Had Gandhi been accused of corruption, fraud, or even anti-national activities and sedition, it would be a different matter. But a conviction for calling Lalit, Nirav and Narendra Modi thieves, while Lalit and Nirav Modi are absconding in the U.K., when the Modi government is struggling to extradite and hold them accountable, is an entirely different matter.
Gandhi has been accused of being a toothless leader of the Congress Party, and the nepotistic crown prince of the grand old political family of India. There are hundreds of memes on Gandhi blamed for the Congress Party losing elections, even his family’s stronghold parliamentary constituency.
Only very recently has Gandhi come into his own. He recently gained a lot of momentum leading the Bharat Jodo Yatra—a 2500-mile-long march across India. Gandhi walked from dawn to dusk for five months straight, energizing his party workers and meeting and gathering supporters in each state. It was a leaf out of the old congress playbook of the OG —Mohandas Gandhi – who marched across India in various agitations.
Going to jail for speaking against the government will be yet another leaf out of the old playbook, one Indians understand very well. Indian voters have always rallied around and electorally rewarded this kind of sacrifice. Opposition leaders, especially in states where the BJP is not in government, are already rallying in support of Gandhi.
If this is not just the work of BJP members and Modi sycophants trying to please him, and Modi or the BJP leadership were instrumental in orchestrating Gandhi’s conviction and disqualification, they likely made a huge mistake.
By targeting Rahul Gandhi, Modi just gave the opposition renewed momentum, and free campaign publicity, in the run up to the 2024 elections. Even if the disqualification from parliament holds, and he is eventually convicted and disbarred from contesting elections for six years, nothing prevents Gandhi from leading his party and the opposition, or campaigning for others in the 2024 elections.
If Narendra Modi is actually pulling the strings, the smarter move is to expedite the appeal, get it thrown out and reinstate Rahul Gandhi to parliament.
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