India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has done Rahul Gandhi a massive favour.
After consistently deriding the Congress leader, calling him names and loudly proclaiming that nothing he says actually matters, the ruling party’s recent over the top attack on Rahul — and his disqualification as an MP after conviction in a defamation case — has only got people asking one question: why are they so afraid of him?
If Rahul Gandhi is irrelevant, if he is a fool as the BJP would like to have us believe, then why are top BJP ministers, MPs and party spokespersons spending so much time attacking Rahul Gandhi and reacting to his every word in this way?
The optics are terrible for the BJP at the moment. First, it is the treasury benches that have repeatedly stalled parliament since the Budget session resumed in mid March, accusing Rahul Gandhi of defaming the country abroad with his comments on Indian democracy in the UK and demanding an apology in the House.
An unprecedented move
It is unprecedented to see a ruling party stall proceedings of parliament like this. Now, the rare conviction and jail term in the criminal defamation case and the alacrity with which the Lok Sabha Speaker disqualified the Wayanad MP, only makes the BJP look unsteady and nervous.
Legal experts have long argued that India’s criminal defamation laws are obsolete and must go. Defamation should be a civil offence, it should not send people to jail.
If he goes to jail over the statements he made, it would galvanise the Congress cadre. He does not need to be an MP to be a leader
The ruling against Rahul also has serious implications for all politicians on the campaign trail. Elections in India often see leaders take liberties with the language they use.
Experts have also raised questions on the process followed by the Surat court which convicted Rahul Gandhi. For one, what locus standi did a court in Gujarat have over comments that Rahul made during an election rally in Karnataka by an accused who resides in Delhi?
A united opposition
Moreover, India’s Supreme Court has laid out a process that trial courts must follow if they are proceeding against someone outside their usual territorial jurisdiction.
Newspaper reports have quoted Rahul’s lawyer as telling the court “Rahul Gandhi is a resident of Delhi, which is outside the jurisdiction of this court. For such an accused, the law requires the witnesses to be examined, and the matter inquired. The court is then required to give the reason on whether to issue the summons or not. No such thing was followed.”
Legalities aside, the entire series of controversies has only further fractured the relationship between the government and the opposition, or whatever tenuous threads remained. Importantly, the disqualification of Rahul Gandhi has unexpectedly united the opposition.
Parties which have been wary of the Congress have rallied strongly in Rahul’s support including Mamata Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal and K Chandrashekar Rao. This is a big moment for the opposition. They know this is a common challenge they all face from a government which is determined to shrink the space for them.
Will Congress seize the opportunity?
Ironically, Rahul Gandhi has been disqualified as an MP under a provision of the law that the UPA government was trying to overturn. Earlier, the law said a convicted MP need not be disqualified till an appeal is pending.
This was subsequently changed by the Supreme Court in a landmark ruling in 2013 called ‘Lily Thomas vs the Union of India’ case, which said if an MP is convicted for an offence of 2 years or more, he or she can be disqualified right away.
The disqualification can be reversed if a higher court grants a stay on the conviction or decides the appeal in favour of the convicted lawmaker. Significantly, the stay cannot merely be a suspension of sentence but has to be a stay of conviction.
The Manmohan Singh government had prepared an ordinance to strike this down. Rahul infamously tore that ordinance up in front of the entire media, embarrassing then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who was travelling to the US. The ordinance was withdrawn.
The defamation conviction and Rahul Gandhi’s subsequent disqualification as an MP could generate plenty of sympathy for the Congress leader if he plays his political cards right.
If he goes to jail over the statements he made, it would galvanise the Congress cadre. He does not need to be an MP to be a leader.
Will the Congress seize the opportunity?