More than a year before India’s next election, the campaign has awoken with a startling political defenestration: the conviction and eviction from parliament of Rahul Gandhi, prime minister Narendra Modi’s chief political rival.
A court in Surat in Modi’s home state Gujarat last month convicted the heir to the family behind the opposition Congress party of defamation over remarks in a 2019 speech in which he asked “why all thieves have the name Modi”.
The two-year prison sentence handed to Gandhi was enough for parliament, controlled by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party, to disqualify him just a day later. Last week he was ordered to vacate his official bungalow in New Delhi in a move that Indians, depending on their political sympathies, watched with either Schadenfreude or dismay.
People are now debating whether his expulsion from parliament will end up helping Modi by removing Gandhi as a plausible prime ministerial candidate, or actually build him up as a political martyr.
Modi critics who see the legal case as heavy handed say it could end up aiding his rival. Gandhi’s grandmother Indira Gandhi was ejected from her own parliamentary seat in 1978 and briefly jailed for breach of privilege and contempt of parliament. The move generated public sympathy that helped her win a fourth term in office in 1980.
“This is not necessarily a bad thing for Rahul Gandhi,” says Gilles Verniers, a senior fellow with the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. “It depends on what he’s going to do next.”
Some have described the court case and hasty rustication of India’s most prominent opposition figure as a decisive step in a slide towards authoritarianism in the world’s biggest democracy, where they say institutions are being bent to meet political ends.
Modi’s critics have questioned the premise of the defamation case, which was brought not by the prime minister himself, but by a local politician with the same surname — Purnesh Modi — who was not mentioned in Gandhi’s remarks.
The BJP insists due process of law has been followed.
The US, which metes out any criticism of India in meek terms at a time when the two countries are drawing closer in their opposition to China, said last week it was “watching Mr Gandhi’s case in Indian courts” and emphasised the two countries’ “shared commitment to democratic values, including freedom of expression”.
However, some in India believe Modi and the BJP are deliberately setting up the election as a two-man contest between the popular incumbent and Gandhi, a politician who has in past proved a weak and gaffe-prone campaigner. Gandhi will be barred from running in 2024 if he fails to get his conviction overturned on appeal.
The BJP beat Congress in the last two elections in 2014 and 2019 on the back of resurgent Hindu nationalism and disenchantment with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty’s record in office, which was marred by corruption scandals.
Gandhi and his family’s inherited political privilege has long been an easy target for the ruling party, headed by a man with humble origins closer to those of most Indian voters than to Gandhi’s.
“The more you rubbish Modi, the more people feel sympathetic to Modi,” said Mohandas Pai, chair of Aarin Capital, a venture capital firm based in Bangalore. “Modi has done a lot for people, he is not from a prominent family, and if you abuse his background, his statements, his dress, people don’t like it.”
Last week BJP officials released a cartoon video deriding Gandhi as a shahzada, an Urdu word for “prince” with Persian origins, and showing him sporting a crown and being fanned and fed grapes by courtiers, while slinging mud at opponents.
But Gandhi, who stepped down as Congress president after the party’s second consecutive loss in 2019, has been rebuilding his national profile in recent months. His campaign has included a trans-India trek and trenchant attacks on the prime minister’s ties to Gautam Adani, the industrialist whose companies are under attack from a short seller.
On Wednesday, Modi ally Amit Shah, the home minister, accused Gandhi of “arrogance” in not going to a higher court to appeal his case. Congress says he plans to appeal and his lawyers are preparing “carefully” because of two other similar cases he faces. But he has not yet done so, fuelling speculation that he might be prepared to go to jail.
Gandhi’s younger sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, Congress’s general secretary, has also made combative speeches in recent days, demonstrating the dynasty’s staying power — and the potential presence of another family heir. Most Indians, whether they think the family are embattled or entitled, will probably agree the Gandhis are not going away soon.