Modi and Rahul, Rahul and Modi
Image combo: India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) and Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi (R) Image Credit: AFP

Rahul Gandhi, Member of Parliament from Wayanad in Kerala, has been found guilty of defamation by a trial court in Surat in Gujarat, the home state of prime minister Narendra Modi. The case itself was filed by a BJP leader.

While Gandhi’s two-year sentence will be put on hold as he has enough legal remedies, he has been immediately disqualified from the parliament.

The development comes in the middle of a Parliament session that’s been largely held hostage to the issue of Rahul Gandhi’s comments against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in UK, even in the British Parliament. The ruling Bhartiya Janata Party is of the view that speaking against India on foreign soil is rather an anti-national thing to do.

Gandhi’s conviction order comes at a time when he has been rejecting the BJP’s insistence on an apology in Parliament.

More on Modi vs Rahul

The BJP’s sharp response to Rahul Gandhi’s comments in UK may be understood in light of the Modi government’s efforts to counter the idea that democracy in India is sliding. In a year when India is hosting the G20 summit, Rahul Gandhi goes to London and complains Indian democracy is facing a deficit.

Rahul Gandhi’s comments in UK do not hurt the BJP’s votes. But they hurt PM Modi’s — and yes, India’s — global outreach efforts.

As soon as Gandhi’s conviction order came, BJP spokespersons went on an all-out attack against Rahul Gandhi. They accused him of being against all of India’s institutions, from courts to democracy, from the armed forces to the Parliament. They laid particular stress on his comments on “foreign soil”, thus reaffirming that that’s the larger issue.

The BJP’s Rahul Gandhi obsession

These developments, once again, raise the issue of Rahul Gandhi’s importance. He is at once portrayed as being inconsequential: he couldn’t even save the family pocket-borough of Amethi in Uttar Pardesh. Nobody — not even his supporters — ever say he can be a political and electoral threat to the Modi-led BJP.

Why, then, does the BJP expend so much energy attacking him?

Congress MP Rahul Gandhi
Congress MP Rahul Gandhi reaches Surat District Court in connection with the 2019 criminal defamation case filed against him, in Surat on Thursday, March 23, 2023. Image Credit: ANI

For years now we have seen the BJP attack Rahul Gandhi with so much deliberation and diligence that you might think Rahul Gandhi matters. The leader whose gaffes keep the BJP thriving is far from a threat to it.

One would have expected the BJP to be too complacent about the Congress and its de facto leader to care. Rahul Gandhi scores too many own goals for the BJP to need to attack him.

You go after what can actually threaten you. Why go after someone who’s no threat?

In black and white

The answer lies in the importance of contrast in politics. Even in a multi-party democracy like India, there are essentially two sides, with the smaller parties aligning themselves around the two main poles.

For the BJP to remain in power, it has to be liked more than the Congress. Even if there is some disenchantment with the BJP, the question before voters is whether the BJP is still better than the Congress.

In other words, the BJP looks better by contrast. By itself you could fault the BJP for a lot. You can talk about unemployment and inflation. Politically you could point out that the BJP has lost numerous state elections, some even to the Congress.

As we are only a little over a year away from the next Lok Sabha elections, we will see renewed efforts by the BJP to contrast itself with the Congress.

Rahul Gandhi as Modi’s insurance policy

The result of this contrast is reflected in one opinion poll after another. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s approval ratings usually hover around 60-70%, among the highest in the world.

Rahul Gandhi is so far behind him in ratings that even if PM Modi’s ratings were to have a sudden fall, they would be comfortably ahead of Gandhi’s.

The persistent drawing of contrast is thus an insurance policy. The BJP, having learnt from the Congress the pitfalls of becoming complacent in power, wants to make sure it does not take its political capital for granted.

One sees this contrast reflected in political conversations across India. Swing voters — who typically used to not vote for the BJP until 2014 — immediately defend their decision to vote for the BJP by pointing out that they can’t imagine Rahul Gandhi as prime minister.

The TINA factor

This contrast, this binary, then produces a sense of TINA - There is no alternative.

The BJP benefits by attacking Rahul Gandhi because he is not popular with at least the swing voters who can change governments. But when a party attacks a popular leader, it usually backfires.

So when the BJP, and PM Modi himself, attacked West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee in 2021, it backfired. Banerjee returned to power with both more seats and a greater vote share than in the previous election.

Put simply, in politics as in war, you begin by attacking the opponent on their Achilles’ Heel. If you attack the opponent on their strong points to begin with, they win. Rahul Gandhi is the Congress party’s Achilles’ Heel.

By the same logic, the Congress party does not benefit by attacking PM Modi, because PM Modi is too popular. The Congress would benefit more by positive campaigning — giving people reasons to like Congress and Rahul Gandhi.

As the BJP vs Congress hostility escalates over Rahul Gandhi, chances are that the Congress will only sink deeper in its negative campaign trap.