After being convicted for allegedly defaming “the Modi community”, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was expelled from Parliament. Members of Parliament lose their seats upon conviction if the sentence is at least two years.
The Congress party’s response to this once-unthinkable event has been predictable outrage and protest. It is the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s response that is interesting. The BJP has said it will go door to door in 100,000 villages across India, collecting signatures of 10 million Indians, on a note that condemns Rahul Gandhi for allegedly defaming the OBCs, the large and varied group of the middle castes. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also from the OBC group — but everyone with the surname Modi isn’t.
You would have expected the BJP to make it about PM Modi himself — after all, the prime target of Rahul Gandhi’s 2019 speech was PM Modi. He was comparing PM Modi to Nirav Modi and Lalit Modi, both wanted in India for financial crimes. Usually, the BJP’s campaigning is all about Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and so you would have expected them to use this moment to once again create a narrative about ‘Congress insulting the prime minister’.
Instead, the BJP has made it about the masses. With the next general election just about a year away, they have also used it as a clever opportunity to deepen their connect with the OBCs — this was once a weak point for the BJP.
It’s a reminder of how politics must always be about the masses. The BJP likely saw a risk of the Congress party creating an impression that something unfair and unjust had been done to them. Since offence is the best form of defence, the BJP decided to make it all about OBCs, so that the BJP’s most critical voting bloc is not swayed by any sympathy for Rahul Gandhi.
The Congress party can of course keep shouting from the rooftops that there was remotely no element of insulting OBCs in Rahul Gandhi’s speech. But can the Congress party get 10 million signatures on a petition? Forget 10 million, can they even get a hundred thousand? Even after 9 years of being out of power, they haven’t realised the importance of creating a robust, centralised, always-on party organisation. A party that wins 120 million votes can’t even go around collecting signatures of 0.5% of those voters.
The Bharat Jodo bluff
From September 2022 to January 2023, Rahul Gandhi walked from Kanyakumari to Kashmir, from the southern to the northern tip of the Indian peninsula. This long walk, called the Bharat Jodo Yatra or Unite India March, was supposed to have remade Rahul Gandhi into a mass leader. The Yatra was no doubt a rare mass outreach programme for the Nehru-Gandhi family, which usually likes to play “High Command” from Delhi.
Given this rekindling of mass connect, one would have expected a mass upsurge in defence of Rahul Gandhi after his expulsion. No such thing has happened. The Congress party is protesting in its own lacklustre way: protests so dispirited that they are hardly making a dent in the political discourse.
Rahul Gandhi’s expulsion therefore calls the bluff on the Bharat Jodo Yatra. In the Yatra, Rahul Gandhi was unable to meet ordinary Indians in an organic way. He was meeting pre-arranged people who were allowed to enter his security cordon because their names were recorded in advance. These were the same Congress leaders and sympathisers and liberal academics he meets in Delhi and London anyway.
The Bharat Jodo Yatra did not mobilise the masses on issues such as unemployment and inflation, the main pitch was always the abstract notion of love defeating hate. To the extent that it did move anyone, the gains were not consolidated by bringing them into the party organisation.
In other words, the Bharat Jodo Yatra was all about the Wayanad MP, Rahul Gandhi.
Wayanad doesn’t care either
In his press conference after his disqualification, Rahul Gandhi said he doesn’t care about having been convicted and disqualified. A real mass leader would never have said this. A real mass leader would have said this was an affront to the people because after all he represented the people — at the very least, the people of Wayanad in Kerala.
Imagine you are told your chosen MP is no longer allowed to work as your MP. And then your MP says he doesn’t care. How would you feel about that? It is precisely because Rahul Gandhi ‘doesn’t care’ that he lost the family pocket-borough of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh.
No wonder there was no outrage in Wayanad. A Press Trust of India report from Wayanad was beautifully titled: “In Wayanad, life goes on”. Another news report spoke of predictable factionalism within the Wayanad Congress coming in the way of concerted protests. Of course, Rahul Gandhi hasn’t cared to visit Wayanad yet.
Intellectual approval versus mass approval
Soon after the Bharat Jodo Yatra, Rahul Gandhi went to UK, giving students at Cambridge University a report card of his Yatra. He also spoke about India in the British Parliament and at some other high profile events.
Rahul Gandhi’s desperate need for intellectual approval — especially from the West — betrays the absence of a desperate need for approval from the masses. He does not want 10 million signatures on a petition in his favour. The thought of mass success seems to scare him — power is poison, he famously said.
Rahul Gandhi and his party are now going on and on about Adani, alleging corruption. Whether the charges are true or not is not the point. They’re definitely not moving any votes. In 1989 VP Singh was able to make the Bofors corruption scandal a big enough issue to make Rahul’s father Rajiv lose an election. In 2013, the Lokpal movement again used corruption to delegitimise a Congress government. So why can’t Rahul Gandhi use Rafale or Adani to change the course of politics?
Once again, the answer lies in the Congress party’s inability to understand that the masses have to be central to any campaign, and political project. Both VP Singh and Arvind Kejriwal waged mass movements. Rahul Gandhi gave one speech in Parliament and took the next flight to London. Rahul Gandhi could connect the Adani issue to unemployment to make people care, for example, but for that he has to himself care in the first place.