In May 2005, a Griha Pravesh Puja―a ‘family only’ affair―was organised at 12 Tughlak Lane. Soon after, Rahul Gandhi moved into the house in Lutyens Delhi allotted to him months earlier as a newly minted member of the Lok Sabha. It was a time when Rahul, winning from the family stronghold of Amethi, was setting foot in the complicated world of politics. The very act of moving out of 10 Janpath―Sonia Gandhi’s official residence―was symbolic of the big shift in his life.
Since then, it has been a rollercoaster ride for the former Congress president. Rahul will soon have to vacate 12 Tughlak Lane following his conviction in a criminal defamation case by a court in Surat and subsequent disqualification as a Lok Sabha member. In the beginning, he was seen as diffident and a misfit in politics, even as his party was, in phases, bringing him on to the centre stage and his political rivals were still sizing him up. Almost two decades later, he is at the centre of a political storm, his opponents at their shrillest in denouncing him as a failed politician while his party is hoping the spotlight on him will end up benefiting him.
Rahul has perhaps never been at the centre of news and discussions the way he is at present. Over the last few months, there is a certain breathlessness to the pace at which developments related to him have taken place. When he had walked into Parliament at the beginning of the budget session in early February, he still sported his overgrown beard from the Bharat Jodo Yatra, his swagger reflecting the confidence of a mission well accomplished. The yatra was seen as having helped in great measure to repair his image and project him as a sincere, committed politician.
Then came his speech in the Lok Sabha on the Adani issue in the backdrop of the Hindenburg Research report. Rahul’s controlled aggression as he asked uneasy questions about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s alleged proximity to businessman Gautam Adani had the treasury benches up in arms. A line-up of Union ministers countered him in Parliament and outside. There was a qualitative change in the BJP’s attacks on him this time, with the ‘Pappu’ jibes a thing of the past.
Rahul’s ‘democracy in peril’ comment made in the UK resulted in the second half of the budget session getting washed out, owing to unprecedented scenes of the treasury benches disrupting the proceedings. The ruling side stuck to its demand of an apology from Rahul in Parliament. He was called a traitor and even dubbed a modern-day Mir Jafar. Shortly afterwards, the Delhi Police visited Rahul’s residence, seeking details about a speech he made during the yatra in which he had spoken about women confiding to him about crimes perpetrated on them.
The furore over Rahul has reached its crescendo with his conviction and disqualification as an MP. It has set off a bitter confrontation between the government and the opposition, and could set the tone for the coming round of Assembly elections and the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. It is another matter that had the ordinance on disqualification of MPs that he strongly opposed in 2013 become law, his disqualification would not have been immediate (the Manmohan Singh government had wanted to bring in an ordinance that would have allowed convicted MPs and MLAs to retain their seat for three months).
Rahul, who in his Twitter bio now refers to himself as a Dis’Qualified MP, has described the recent events as the “best gift” the BJP could have given him. Implied in the statement is the optimism that the developments will provide his party an opportunity to take on the Modi government with vigour.
“The more they attack Rahul Gandhi, the stronger he will get,” said Congress’s chief whip in Lok Sabha Manickam Tagore. “They have unleashed all their power to try and silence him, and he has frustrated their efforts. The entire party will rally around our leader. You cannot stop us from going to the people.”If his conviction is not stayed by a higher court or his sentence not reduced to less than two years, Rahul faces the scenario of not being able to contest the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. As of now, he will be barred from contesting elections for eight years including the two-year sentence.
While the Congress would be looking for legal remedies, there is hope that the recent developments will help him emerge as a political martyr in the eyes of the people. Moreover, Rahul has attempted to turn the dynasty tag into a badge of honour. Rahul and sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra have referred to the family name―described by political rivals as a symbol of dynasty politics―as a legacy of sacrifice. Congress general secretary Priyanka, in an emotional outpouring at the party’s protest against Rahul’s disqualification, decried the Modi government for hurling insults on a family that has made the ultimate sacrifice for the country and for calling the son of a martyr a traitor.
Comparisons with the 1970s have also been made on expected lines, with party leaders recalling the time when Indira Gandhi, out in the woods post Emergency, made a spectacular comeback after she was arrested in 1977. However, a closer look would show that while there are parallels, there are many differences between then and now, starting with the nature of the opponent and the stature of the leader in question.
However, the Congress plans to carry out a sustained agitation, at least for the next one month, with satyagrahas and street protests at the district, state and national levels. A ‘Mera Ghar Rahul Gandhi Ka Ghar (My house is Rahul Gandhi’s house)’ campaign has been launched, taking off on Rahul’s eviction from his official residence. It is felt that the party will be able to convince the people that Rahul is a victim of political vendetta, and that the conviction is not for corruption or for a heinous crime but for a speech made in the heat and dust of electioneering. Also on the anvil is part two of Rahul’s Bharat Jodo Yatra, this time from east to west of the country.
“The backdrop is of the disqualification of Rahul Gandhi,” said K.C. Venugopal, Congress general secretary in charge of organisation. “But the main issue before us is the need to protect democracy. The Modi government has used all its three weapons against Rahul Gandhi―threat, vendetta and oppression.”
In what could have set the party’s line of attack for the Lok Sabha elections, Rahul has made it clear that he will keep taking on the prime minister over his alleged involvement in the Adani issue. This is in sync with Rahul’s earlier ‘Suit Boot Ki Sarkar’ jibe―the first time that he is said to have got under Modi’s skin.
The challenge for the Congress is to translate the benefits of the yatra and now the furore over Rahul’s disqualification into tangible gains by getting a clear narrative in place and clarity on what the party plans to do to deal with issues such as unemployment and price rise. Also, a section of the party cautions against going overboard with the attack on Modi during the assembly elections. In Karnataka, for example, the party has thus far focused on local issues and attacked the Bommai government. However, it is also felt that the Gandhi family has always enjoyed a high popularity in the southern state, and the attacks on Rahul are bound to resonate with people.
The party runs the risk of falling into the trap of the BJP using the intense focus on Rahul to turn the Lok Sabha election into a ‘Modi vs Rahul’ contest. The saffron party believes that the former Congress chief is no match for Modi. However, according to Congress leaders, what needs to be taken into account is that 2024 is going to be different from 2014 and 2019. If Rahul was saddled with the perception of a corrupt UPA government in 2014, in 2019, the terrorist attack in Pulwama and the Balakot air strikes in retaliation had tilted the scales in favour of Modi.
The recent developments have, meanwhile, had the effect of bringing the opposition parties together. Congress’s trusted allies, uneasy allies, frenemies and parties that had kept their distance have all come together to decry the action against Rahul as reflective of Modi’s alleged dictatorial ways and an attack on democracy. Condemnation came from leaders like Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal, who are known to have no love lost for Rahul and the Congress. The second half of the budget session has seen a complete breakdown of communication between the government and the opposition. Many of these parties had already been describing the action by the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate against their leaders as an act of political vendetta. The disqualification of the leader of the country’s main opposition party has given them reason to find a common cause and launch a unified attack on the Modi government. A joint petition has been filed in the Supreme Court.
Also, while the other opposition parties were not keen on pursuing the Rafale issue in 2019, there is a consensus among them on attacking Modi over the Adani matter. They have been united in demanding a joint parliamentary committee to probe the issue, except for the Trinamool which has been calling for a Supreme Court-monitored investigation.
A dinner meeting called by Congress president and leader of opposition Mallikarjun Kharge saw the participation of 19 parties, including the Trinamool and K. Chandrashekar Rao’s Bharat Rashtra Samithi. According to a senior Congress leader, it was heartening to see that the Trinamool was represented by not one but two leaders in that meeting. He also said that the recent developments have had the positive impact of doing away with the talk about the formation of a third front, which leaders such as Mamata, Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav and Rao were prompting by holding meetings of non-Congress parties.
“The BJP is desperate to silence the voice of the opposition,” said Trinamool’s Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’Brien. “We know they are desperate. We know they want to silence the voice. We know they would go to all kinds of lows. This is the lowest since 1950, the lowest in the history of parliamentary democracy,”
In Kharge’s dinner meeting, the bonhomie among the party leaders was exceptional. Rahul is learnt to have exchanged notes with Trinamool’s Prasun Banerjee on football; it was said to be his first interaction with opposition leaders at this level. On a more serious note, he declared that he was ready to make any sacrifice for the sake of opposition unity, implying that the Congress is willing to make concessions on who will be the face of the grouping.
As regards to the strong reservations by Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena over his remarks on V.D. Savarkar, Rahul is learnt to have conveyed his readiness to pipe down on the issue. “We have had a coordinated approach in Parliament in asking questions of the Modi government. There is now a need to systematically build a coordination among the opposition parties outside Parliament, too,” said Jairam Ramesh, Congress general secretary in charge of communications.
At Kharge’s meeting, it is learnt that many leaders stressed the need for the Congress to convene a meeting of the top leadership of opposition parties. This meeting could take place in the first week of April.
This is indeed the moment of truth for Rahul, his party and the larger opposition.
* The Election Commission must announce bypolls in Wayanad constituency within six months, but may have to set it aside if Rahul secures a stay
* If Rahul fails to get a stay soon, he may not be able to contest the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. As per The Representation of The People Act, he will not be able to contest elections for eight years, including the two years of imprisonment