For the first time since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power nine years ago, India’s opposition parties appear to be uniting in opposition to the existential threat that the country’s democratic structure and norms face from the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). The immediate reason for this sense of urgency is the expulsion of Rahul Gandhi, the biggest leader of the largest opposition party, the Indian National Congress, from parliament after a lower court in the state of Gujarat convicted him in a three-year-old defamation case. The court gave him a two-year jail sentence.
The manner of the hearing of the case, the conviction and the punishment have drawn severe criticism from many jurists. But the opposition’s unity has also to do with its realisation that Gandhi’s disqualification from parliament is an audacious signal by the government that it can go to any extent to cripple political forces who challenge it democratically. The message is clear: it is high time the opposition gets its act together. In India’s multi-party democracy, many of the opposition leaders and groups that have near-unanimously criticised the moves against Gandhi are otherwise rivals in different states. That they have come together is hugely significant. They can see that the action against Gandhi is the culmination of steps taken by the Modi government to humiliate and discredit a range of opposition leaders, by portraying them as criminals in the eyes of the people using the judiciary and investigative agencies. Before Gandhi, many leaders from his party and other political parties have been slapped with criminal charges and some of them have even been jailed. They have been made to appear before investigative agencies for days together. The readiness of the judiciary to largely play along with the government’s crackdown has put further constraints on the opposition, and indeed on Indian democracy itself.
This moment marks the complete breakdown of all civil norms and bipartisanship that hold parliamentary politics together. In several instances, when Modi’s BJP has lost elections in states, it has still grabbed power by toppling governments or breaking rival political parties. It has cornered a giant chunk of election funding through an opaque electoral bonds scheme under which the identity of donors and who they give money to need not be disclosed. To be clear, democracy is not only about ruling and opposition parties. It is about the institutional balance that keeps state power in check. In India, this institutional mechanism has been captured by the BJP. The election commission, the judiciary and other institutions supposed to be autonomous have surrendered before the government or are largely acting on its behalf. The corporate world appears to mostly be behind the BJP. Other civil society organisations which previously kept vigil on the state apparatus have been broken using different laws.
Against this backdrop, Modi’s government still had no answers to Gandhi’s questions on the alleged patronage it had bestowed upon industrialist Gautam Adani whose wealth rose from $7bn in 2014 to more than $100bn at the start of this year. Gandhi’s allegation that Modi and Adani enjoy a special relationship got a boost from a January report by United States-based short-seller Hindenburg, which accused Adani of dubious and fraudulent practices, even calling it among the biggest con acts in recent history. Adani has denied the report’s allegations, but the verdict of the markets has been clear: the value of the shares of his companies has plummeted, and his own wealth has crashed. Gandhi has since doubled down on his allegations that Modi has favoured Adani. He used the platform of parliament to attack the government. The government refused to accept the demand of the opposition to institute a parliamentary enquiry into the Adani affair, creating a stalemate in parliament.
Meanwhile, Gandhi went on a lecture tour of the United Kingdom, where, in his talks and interactions, he painted a dismal picture of contemporary India’s political landscape. Calling Indian democracy a public good for the world at large, he said that its death would be a global loss. The BJP, helped by a pliant big media in India, portrayed these remarks as an insult to India on foreign soil. Yet when Gandhi asked for permission to respond to these allegations in parliament, the presiding officer of the house refused to give him the chance to do so. And then came this conviction and expulsion. By rallying together, the opposition can make their voters realise the gravity of the threat that Indian democracy is facing. Their greatest obstacle is the big media of India, which has been acting as the mouthpiece of the ruling party and which keeps feeding misinformation to the public, defames opposition parties and creates hatred among Hindus against Muslims, Christians and intellectuals. The challenge before the opposition is to communicate to the people the facts, clear the cobweb of misinformation and disinformation created by the big media and bring India’s myriad communities together. It won’t be easy. The beginning of the holy month of Ramadan has seen attacks on Muslim religious rituals by the gangs affiliated with the ruling party. The prayers of Christians are routinely disrupted, their houses and churches attacked. The state of Maharashtra has seen scores of rallies calling for violence against Muslims in the last three months. Indian society is in an unprecedented state of fragmentation. Yet the job of bringing Indian people together, while difficult, is not impossible. It requires an honest investment from leaders of opposition parties in the politics of togetherness, without which democracy becomes meaningless. After having traversed a length of nearly 4,000km (2,485 miles) with this message of unity through his recent Bharat Jodo Yatra, Rahul Gandhi has acquired the moral authority to take on this task.
In some ways, his expulsion from the parliament could free him from parliamentary obligations and give him a chance to start a conversation with the people about the state of the country, on the streets. The government’s relentless attack on him shows how much it fears Gandhi, who refuses to mince words while taking on Modi. But ultimately, this moment is not – and must not become – about Gandhi. The next step, a more challenging step, will be for Gandhi to shift focus from himself to the threat to the democratic rights of the people of India.