OPN Rahul Gandhi
In India, Rahul Gandhi is viewed as a political underdog who garners support from the underprivileged and a large portion of the working classes. This widespread appeal makes him a formidable adversary in electoral battles. Image Credit: Gulf News via ANI

Though some have questioned the merits of Indian democracy, it is a fact that the change of the country's government continues to happen only through electoral means.

The next general election in India is less than a year away, and Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the Indian National Congress party, continues to be the main opponent of the present right-wing government led by Narendra Modi.

The 53-year old has consistently criticised India's Prime Minister and his policies on economic development, social welfare, and governance.

Rahul's party is the only national opposition party — thus far — that presents a clear alternative vision and policies to India's electorates — grounded on secular, democratic, inclusive principles.

India's ruling party has tried to target Rahul Gandhi in many ways. The infamous IT cell of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spends a huge amount of resources to ridicule him in whatever possible way.

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Security downgraded

Several frontline leaders of the ruling party regularly launch personal attacks against him. The economic intelligence agency of the government has been unleashed on him. Though he has lost both his father and grandmother (both former Prime Ministers) to terror attacks, his security cover has been significantly reduced.

At least ten cases have been filed against Rahul Gandhi in different parts of India. In one of these cases, in March 2023, on the grounds of defaming a particular community, a judge of a lower court in Gujarat sentenced him to two years in prison.

India's defamation law continues from the colonial period, but no one in India has received the highest possible punishment under the defamation law in the Indian Penal Code since 1860. Rahul Gandhi, however, got the maximum punishment.

The lower court's judgment was not a one-time accident, as that court refused Rahul Gandhi's appeal against the conviction in April. Not only that, even the Gujarat High Court last week dismissed a plea where he sought a stay on the sentence.

Voice of the opposition

The two-year conviction verdict has also disqualified Rahul Gandhi from being a member of the present Parliament. A member of the Indian Parliament since 2004, Gandhi's official accommodation was also taken away.

He needed to take the help of a court in Delhi to get a passport to travel abroad.

In a democratic system, the leader of the main opposition party is critical as that person plays a very important role in holding the ruling party accountable and keeping the government in check. The opposition leader's voice represents the views and interests of those who didn't vote for the ruling party.

This is not new. India witnessed this trend in the 1977 and 1980 general elections. Putting an opposition leader in jail neither silences their voice nor decreases their popularity. Several leaders have come out of jail to assume power in many countries.

The most recent example is Malaysia, where the present Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, had spent years in prison. Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic, and Michelle Bachelet of Chile have also transited from prison to power.

Often enough jailing an opposition leader has the opposite effect, turning them into formidable challengers.

The BJP only needs to look at the massive defeat it faced in the recent Karnataka state election. Therefore no one should be surprised if a disqualified member of Parliament in 2023 goes on to become the Prime Minister of India in 2024


A daunting opponent

Moreover, in electoral competition, as many studies have recently pointed out, voters — including in India — tend to support underdogs. The social media-created echo chambers also help the voters to rally behind the 'underdog' political parties.

The victimisation helps the opposition leader to be seen as disadvantaged in an electoral arena. In India, the present Prime Minister had himself come to power in 2014 by projecting himself as an 'underdog' and alleging that the Congress High Command had victimised him.

Ironically now Rahul Gandhi is being perceived as an 'underdog', making him electorally a daunting opponent.

Thus, Rahul Gandhi's sentencing and disqualification from Parliament, may actually harm the ruling party's own re-election prospects. It is a spectacular self-goal by the BJP that has catapulted Rahul Gandhi to the frontline of the electoral battle.

The BJP only needs to look at the massive defeat it faced in the recent Karnataka state election. Therefore no one should be surprised if a disqualified member of Parliament in 2023 goes on to become the Prime Minister of India in 2024.