Jailing Gandhi may create genuine opposition to Modi

The political impact of Rahul Gandhi’s prison sentence could be a unifying force for the opposition parties of India as the country prepares for a general election in 2024.

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Charu Lata Hogg

Associate Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme

By any yardstick, Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification as a member of the Indian Parliament the day after being convicted in a defamation case, and the rapid move by a court in Gujarat to sentence him to two years in prison, has been an exercise in unprecedented judicial alacrity.

The complaint was filed against Gandhi – the great-grandson of the first prime minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru – by a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lawmaker from Gujarat in 2019 over a remark which, it is claimed, defames the entire Modi community – a group of unrelated people, mostly traders, who settled in Gujarat and a few other adjoining states in India.

There appears to be no known legal precedent in India supporting a defamation claim which does not specifically refer to the plaintiff but rather to a generic group of people.

For legal pundits in India, the case is unusual for many reasons. The litigant Purnesh Modi – with no relation to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – sought to delay proceedings for almost 12 months which is considered a strange move as such a step would normally be chosen by the accused.

Also, as Gandhi is a resident of Delhi and not Gujarat, there are concerns the Gujarat judge who sentenced him may not have been following due process by proceeding against someone who is a resident outside of his territorial jurisdiction.

Finally, there appears to be no known legal precedent in India supporting a defamation claim which does not specifically refer to the plaintiff but rather to a generic group of people.

Gandhi’s enhanced public profile

But what is widely accepted is that the move to charge Gandhi with a defamation case was decidedly political.

Gandhi’s recent 4,000 km-long Bharat Jodo Yatra (Unite India March) has not only galvanized public support for his Indian National Congress party in a pre-general election year, it has also raised Gandhi’s appeal among common people and thrust his party into a position of being a viable challenger to the BJP.

What happens next is hard to predict, but the case and subsequent legal sentence, has once again cast a dent on India’s global image of being a liberal democracy.

In recent years, Gandhi has emerged as a vociferous critic of Modi, and has repeatedly launched attacks against the prime minister on his links with controversial businessman Gautam Adani. Many, including some in the Congress Party, allege these reasons are behind the move to disqualify Gandhi from the upcoming general election.

What happens next is hard to predict, but the case and subsequent legal sentence, has once again cast a dent on India’s global image of being a liberal democracy.

In February 2023, the Indian Tax department conducted systematic ‘surveys’ searching BBC offices in Delhi and Mumbai, less than a month after the Indian government had deployed emergency powers to ban the two-part documentary India: The Modi Question which was heavily critical of the prime minister.

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This move flared concerns that free speech is threatened under the BJP government. The right to freedom of speech and expression is assured under the Indian Constitution, but it is not absolute, and may be curtailed in the ‘interests of sovereignty and integrity’.

India has witnessed a slow muzzling of the freedom of media over the last few years. Freedom House, a US government-funded think tank, states the country is suffering from declining media freedom standards. In addition to a slew of attacks on journalists, in early January 2023 the India government’s draft amendments to the Information Technology Rules invited criticism.

Opposition to Modi’s government could grow

The political impact of the move against Gandhi is likely to cut deeply. Although the Congress leader may be barred from contesting in the 2024 general election, unless the sentence is suspended by a higher court or the initial sentence reduced, this could be a boost to the Congress Party’s electoral campaign and be a unifying force for all of the opposition.

While the possibility of state parties gathering under the Congress umbrella may seem highly improbable, at the moment, change is definitely in the air.

India’s regional political parties remain bitterly opposed to each other and, to some extent, the Congress Party in particular. There is not, so far, a viable, united front against the BJP but Gandhi’s suspension and legal case may catalyze regional leaders across Bihar, West Bengal and Kerala to lock arms against the BJP.

While the possibility of state parties gathering under the Congress umbrella may seem highly improbable, at the moment, change is definitely in the air.