Is Rahul Gandhi guilty of defamation or lèse-majesté? Since the latter is not an offence in India, Rahul Gandhi had to be convicted of the former. No reasonable person could of course conclude that his remark equating people bearing the name Modi with thieves rises to criminal defamation. But is our lower judiciary, which condemned Rahul Gandhi, reasonable? Perhaps a clue is in the view expressed last week by the Supreme Court that some Indian magistrates deserve to be hauled off to “judicial academies for upgradation of their skills”.
It is this dilapidated structure, which has consumed the lives of innumerable innocent people, that awarded Rahul Gandhi a two-year sentence. Despite his travails, he is a lucky man. India’s prison population are examples of the luckless. But because his sentence meets the statutory minimum prescribed for disqualification from membership of Parliament, it qualified Rahul Gandhi for punishment. Up until this point, the sequence of events merely bespeaks the decrepit state of India’s judicial system.
What elevates it into an exhibit in the story of India’s authoritarian lurch is the swiftness of Rahul Gandhi’s removal from Parliament. He was handed a notice of eviction by the Joint Secretary of Parliament less than 24 hours after being granted leave to appeal.
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An orchestrated move?
If the speediness of the move is staggering, the claim that Modi personally orchestrated it is unpersuasive. The prime minister is not merely sinister: he is also extremely shrewd. Why would he choose to turn Rahul Gandhi, a fading figure in control of an imploded party, into a martyr for democracy? It’s perfectly possible that Modi has decided to lower his own standards and play very ugly. The more plausible explanation, however, is that the decision to remove Rahul Gandhi was made not on Modi’s command but in order to impress Modi. This is not as sensational as a strongman dispatching his rivals. It is even worse. It suggests irreparable institutional decay—a system in which officials are tripping over themselves to propitiate the strongman by decapitating his critics.
The alternative—that Modi or his inner circle did actually orchestrate Rahul Gandhi’s ejection from Parliament—is not too far-fetched. But what is improbable is the reason advanced by servile Congresspersons: that Modi and his comrades fear Rahul Gandhi and wish to silence him. If this were true, they would not have gone out of their way to amplify and validate his claim that they are anti-democratic.
Rather, they chose to act against Rahul Gandhi not because they want to stilfle him but because they want him to emerge as the main challenger to Modi—and to anoint him as the principal alternative to the prime minister in next year’s general elections. Rahul Gandhi’s long marches and speeches have consolidated his hold over Congress—what they haven’t done is harm Modi. His lament in London at the absence of foreign invigilation of Indian democracy is not new or original. He made an identical remark in 2021, and then led his party to defeat in three states—Assam, Kerala, Puducherry—and a wipeout in a fourth: West Bengal. The BJP ignored him then. It is making him the central issue now because it needs him.
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Pleasing a despotic dynasty
Rahul Gandhi’s belief that he is giving Modi sleepless nights bespeaks his own isolation – and spotlights the cost of cults to our democracy. From the “social media warriors” he has cultivated to the ageing sycophants who surround him, the message the unelected permanent leader of India’s oldest political party hears is that he is special, a man apart, the saviour of India, a messiah among the fallen. When he embraces his mother affectionately and walks a few steps with her, the bootlickers applaud his decency—as though a son loving his mother were an unheard-of phenomenon. When he pranks his sibling, party leaders — rather than object to the divine status accorded to her — smile and laugh and shake their bodies like an audience of infantile monkeys.
It’s all a performance to please a despotic dynasty. Rahul Gandhi is never told, honestly, that the game is up. There is nobody with the spine to inform him that, for all his virtues, he is complicit in what he calls the demise of Indian democracy. He and his family have embedded themselves so intricately into the vital organs of Congress that they cannot be purged unless the host body dies or is given a cleansing reform. An extensive self-seeking infrastructure exists around him, and it perpetuates itself by punishing dissenters who gather the courage to rise up to Rahul Gandhi and his family.
Mallikarjun Kharge, the nominal president of the party, functions as “Rahul Ji”’s cupbearer. He and his crack team have done what impeccable stooges do: they have choked dissent within the party, stamped out potential challengers, and punished Shashi Tharoor—who made a leadership election possible by participating in it—by marginalising him and sent a chilling message to future leaders by quashing those who supported Tharoor. Is there a more squalid illustration of the demise of democracy than this?
Rahul Gandhi maintains the same kind of silence about the democratic victims of his dynasty’s despotism as Modi maintains about the non-Hindu victims of his Hindu nationalism. There is no one with the patriotic nerve to give the troupes of toadies a large barrel of scotch and the directions to the tallest building in the vicinity and tell them, for India’s sake, to get it over with.
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Take himself out of the race
Rahul Gandhi is not defeating Modi. Very far from it. He is delaying, by placing his living cadaver on the site where an opposition should exist, the emergence of a force that can defenestrate Modi. And Modi, as astute as he is ominous, is abetting Rahul Gandhi. If Rahul Gandhi can be held up as the lightning rod, if he can be cast as the enemy, Modi, who owes two victories partially to the entitled princeling, knows that he is guaranteed another triumph.
Modi, after a third election win, will proceed to destroy India. But what Rahul Gandhi’s most passionate supporters among India’s intellectual gentry want is not the electoral termination of Modi’s reign. What they crave is the self-satisfying sense of superiority. And the end of Modi, though immeasurably good for India, would snatch away that priceless feeling. Their illusion of integrity is sustained by failure, and they venerate Rahul Gandhi because he ennobles defeat with the conceit of virtue.
Rahul Gandhi so rarely attended Parliament when he had a free run of the place that being formally banned from it scarcely makes a difference. He was a woeful representative of his former constituents in Amethi, and one hopes that the people of Wayanad will now get the voice in Parliament they deserve. But those who wish Rahul Gandhi well should also, for his sake, hope that this is the beginning of his end in politics. Rahul Gandhi’s entire political life has resembled the life of an emir who issues firmans and decrees and to whom things are given.
His youth was devoured by the parasites who feed on his family. This may be the time for him, for his own sake, to assume responsibility—and, for India’s sake, to abandon the delusion that he is this antique land’s redeemer. It is time for him to move out of the house he occupies gratis. It is time for him to reclaim, in late middle age, his life. Perhaps he could apply his not-inconsiderable intellect to other work, or perhaps he could meditate, or travel as a private citizen, learn new skills along the way, earn an income, make a new man of himself. There is honour in that. In doing so, he will also deprive Modi of what the prime minister wants most: Rahul Gandhi as his opponent. India will be grateful to him.
Kapil Komireddi is the author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India. Follow him on Telegram. Views are personal.
(Edited by Theres Sudeep)