TWO instructive approaches are currently underway to rein in or dislodge autocratic governments in high-profile neighbourhoods. The first method can be glimpsed in the popular movement that has grown into a huge challenge for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s bid to put Israel’s judiciary on a political leash, at least partly to evade trial and possible conviction for alleged bribery.
As street protests grew, the defence minister warned against subverting the judiciary’s independence. Netanyahu summarily dismissed him. Now, Israel’s president is supporting the protesters.
The other method to usher change is visible in Turkiye, where perennially quarrelling opposition rivals have coalesced to defeat President Erdogan single-mindedly in elections due in May.
There’s a fair chance they could regain for Turkiye its fabled secularism. There have been violent methods also that have succeeded or failed to upend usurpers, but we are concerned with peaceful options available to India.
Which brings us to Rahul Gandhi’s expulsion from parliament last week with the help of a Surat magistrate in Gujarat, who found him guilty of defaming the name Modi and handed a two-year maximum jail sentence to the Congress scion.
A two-year conviction mandates the expulsion of members from legislative houses. That the putative remarks relate to a speech Gandhi apparently made in faraway Karnataka during the 2019 general elections, and that the trial and conviction were carried out in Modi’s home state, is noteworthy. It’s unlikely that the magistrate unknowingly convicted Gandhi for all of two years, the maximum for defamation, unaware that a day less would have pre-empted his expulsion from the Lok Sabha.
Could the perceptibly harsh measure become the spark that galvanises the opposition, or provides the glue to cement parties that have not always seen eye to eye with the Congress? The answer can be yes or no.
Could Rahul Gandhi’s expulsion become the spark that galvanises the opposition?
An early problem potentially is Rahul Gandhi’s idea of himself. He positions himself as a peaceful campaigner for the truth — stressing he is not Savarkar, Hindutva’s founding father, who tendered numerous apologies to colonial rulers to gain freedom from prison.
Rather, he is a Gandhi — unafraid to face any adversity, goes the claim, with truth as his shield, his weapon. Rahul says he will not apologise or grovel, come what may, to defend democracy. To many, it’s a resumé to promote mind over matter.
In practical ways, it isn’t clear though, which of the two workable options — cobbling an alliance as in Turkiye, or organising mass protests as in Israel — would accord with the implacable idealism he sees as a Gandhi heir.
“I have been disqualified because the prime minister is scared of my next speech; he is scared of the next speech that is going to come on [Gautam] Adani,” Gandhi said after his expulsion. “So he is terrified about the next speech that is going to come, and they don’t want that speech to be in parliament,” he said, referring to Modi.
Adani is the founder-chair of the Adani Group, a multinational conglomerate from whose private plane Modi alighted in Delhi to take the oath of office in May 2014.
Gandhi said he was not bothered about losing his seat in parliament, as his job was “to defend the institutions of the country and the voice of the people”. He said Modi helped the Adani Group to get contracts in India, Sri Lanka and Australia. A Chinese national was involved in investments in Adani’s shell companies. “Why nobody is asking the question who this Chinese national is,” Gandhi said. “Nobody knows where this money has come from. Adani couldn’t generate this money.”
The threat the Congress feels from Modi is existential. ditto for most of the opposition. Gandhi is no longer party president, but stars at the head of the 134-year old behemoth with its unique nationwide presence despite recently faltering numbers.
Could he unite the fractious opposition while also rallying satraps within his own party to robustly combat Prime Minister Modi in the May 2024 general elections? Who becomes prime minister from the opposition should not stall the fight.
Significantly, key opposition parties that had kept aloof from the Congress — and vice versa — have spoken up against Gandhi’s expulsion. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is backed by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen as an agreeable candidate to supplant Modi. She has been in trouble with the BJP off and on. For her to condemn Gandhi’s expulsion, together with the Aam Aadmi Party’s rage at the jailing of opposition politicians, including its senior ministers, over unproven charges, could be early steps towards an opposition alliance.
Almost every opposition party has struggled with nightmares of becoming the BJP’s next target — a tax raid or defections being the main terror. The BJP recently brought down the Shiv Sena government of Udhav Thackeray by splitting the party and setting up a new ruling alliance in Maharashtra.
The BJP also rules populous Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh after losing the states to Congress coalitions and then destroying them with defections, not without the help of big money. This could become the trickiest problem for any opposition alliance against Modi. Few in the likely coalition are as vocal as Rahul Gandhi about crony capitalism. He has named names, usually an asset, but which could also become a handicap.
The influence of big money, said to be led typically by the Adani and Ambani groups, is said to stalk opposition groups that want to rein in Modi but without upsetting the corporate benefactors.
Such groups can at best tiptoe around the campaign which Rahul Gandhi is sworn to — fighting corruption in high places. Bereft of a shared perspective on the heart of the problem, Gandhi’s singularly brave and avowedly peaceful quest to breach the nexus between religiously cloaked fascism and high corruption shored up by predatory cronyism runs the risk of running aground.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, March 28th, 2023