The debate over the Pegasus spyware investigation has kept India busy for a week. Anyone who follows Indian politics closely would not be surprised with the finding that BJP government was using the services of the NSO group. However, the only surprise is the list of the people whose phones were potential targets.
The number of politicians in India’s ‘Pegasus List’ is fewer than the number of journalists. The ‘image everything’ government seems more concerned about the media report than the challenge it faces from most of the political opposition.
While more than 40 journalists allegedly were on Pegasus list, only a handful of politicians and mainly from the ruling party and its allies, had made that cut. Rahul Gandhi, the former President of the Congress party, was the only political leader of substance at the national level, whose phones were the possible targets for the snooping.
The ruling party and its supporters always claim the opposition leader Rahul Gandhi is their asset, not a threat. Indian media never miss any opportunity to depreciate his political acumen.
Some liberals too write him off and project their favourites, even sometimes from within Congress Party, as the present prime minister’s possible challenger.
BJP's primary threat in national politics
Suppose we believe what is being said and written about Rahul Gandhi in the last seven years. In that case, it is surprising that the ruling regime still continues to see him as the primary threat in national electoral politics.
Rahul Gandhi has resigned from the post of the Congress Party presidentship two years ago. His formal position is merely a Member of Parliament, representing a constituency in the southern corner of the country, Kerala. He refuses to take any formal leadership role in the party.
He is neither a captivating public speaker nor has achieved any impressive electoral success for his party. So, what makes him the only threat to an all-powerful regime?
There are at least three factors, which make the BJP government nervous about Rahul Gandhi. The first one is his TINA (There Is No Alternative) aspect. There is no other opposition leader in the country who can claim to be a leader at the national level.
Most are regional satraps, ruling their states as fiefdoms; they might be highly ambitious but lack organisational and popular support beyond a particular corner of the country.
Rahul Gandhi, as the Congress Party’s undisputed leader, even if he does not carry a formal position, has the support base in each state and every section of the society of a large and highly segmented country like India.
RG's ideological clarity
The second factor that makes Rahul Gandhi the powerful political opposition is his ideological clarity and abhorrence to political compromises. Commentators often criticise him for not making ‘deals’ for which Indian politics is (in) famous, but that aversion to being in power through any means makes him stand out among other opposition leaders.
He never hesitates within India and abroad to tell whoever is listening about the threats of the majoritarian politics to the country’s security and integrity. If any leader in the opposition rank has been consistently audacious in criticising the ruling dispensation and its ideological patron, RSS, it is Rahul Gandhi.
Finally, Rahul Gandhi refuses to get bullied by the regime and his supporters, unlike others in the opposition. He is the only political leader in the country who has never compromised his policy criticism of the government due to fear of retribution.
Neither the narrative of religious nationalism or racial/cultural pride nor the downgrading of his security cover and court cases in various parts of India has stopped him from highlighting the irregularities in the Rafale deal or exposing the government’s ham-handedness in managing the COVID-19 crisis.
He has also taken the hyper-nationalist government to task for its confrontational politics in Kashmir and its failure to protect Indian territory from Chinese intrusion.
When both carrot and stick don’t work to silence the main opposition, any regime is apprehensive. Thus it is not surprising why Rahul Gandhi was the only prominent opposition leader of the country under Pegasus surveillance.
BJP government and media commentators never miss any opportunity to criticise Rahul Gandhi for representing a political dynasty. However, the so-called baggage of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty also provides several advantages to Rahul Gandhi to wage this courageous battle at this difficult time against an ethno-nationalist party.
National acceptance, international recognition
Rahul Gandhi comes from arguably one of the most illustrious political families in the world. Thanks to it, no other leader in the opposition has the depth of national acceptance, and international recognition as Rahul Gandhi has. That makes it more difficult for the government to silence or contain his criticism.
It is understandable why the nationalist BJP government highlights the dynasty factor to deride Rahul Gandhi. However, it is still some mystery why the liberal critics also often bring that up. If not, the world, South Asia, and particularly India, is crowded with political dynasties, and they don’t have any problem with that.
There is no doubt that democracies must have the possibility and opportunity for anyone to compete for power and not be limited to political dynasties.
Still, at the same time, it is also not democratic to discriminate against anyone to be elected to power just because they comes from a political dynasty.
Rahul Gandhi is the only viable secular alternative to the present ethno-nationalist dispensation in India. Pegasus expose shows that BJP government understands and accepts it more than the liberal critics and media commentators of the country.