March 27, 2023
NEW DELHI – Is Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s recent court verdict an advantage or a setback? It is too early to predict as it is an evolving story, depending on many ifs and buts.
What is the verdict? It pertains to a campaign speech in 2019 when Rahul said those with the last name Modi were thieves. A case was filed in Surat court, and the court pronounced a two-year imprisonment on Thursday. The court also gave him bail immediately and suspended the sentence for a month, allowing him time to appeal in a higher court.
Gandhi also faces the risk of being unable to contest the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Unfortunately for him, according to a historic decision of the Supreme Court in 2013, the membership of an MP or MLA, sentenced for two years or more, ends immediately. The Lok Sabha promptly announced his dismissal the next day. It will only be immediately advantageous if a higher court stays or overturns the verdict.
Manmohan Singh, as Prime Minister, brought an ordinance to reverse the judgment in Parliament. Gandhi, for some reason, tore up the ordinance in a press meeting, to show his opposition to the move. Had he not done so, he would have retained his membership.
Some think that the court could have given a milder sentence. Even some Congress-baiters sympathize with Rahul and argue that many politicians use spiteful language against their opponents.
Rahul’s grandmother Indira Gandhi also faced such a situation. Still, she turned the disadvantage into an advantage, gained enormous public sympathy, and returned to power.
Gandhi’s disqualification has given a big issue for him to sustain his recently gained popularity after the Bharat Jodo Yatra. The Congress Party is making it seem as if the punishment is because of the growing popularity after the yatra. Gandhi may like to believe that the verdict can help him turn the tables.
The BJP is happy that the court has fixed Gandhi and believes he is politically finished. Prime Minister Modi and his deputy Amit Shah had been vowing for a “Congress-free” India. For now, it could be a Rahulfree Congress.
Till now, the secret of Modi’s success is the divided Opposition. The verdict has united the Opposition against the ruling dispensation. It comes at a time when opposition parties have accused the Modi government of misusing central agencies like the Enforcement Directorate and Central Bureau of Investigation, and of selectively targeting the Opposition leaders.
Now the mobilisation of opposition parties against the BJP could become more assertive and strengthened. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee was the first to condemn the dismissal of Gandhi even though she has been opposing Congress all along. Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal was another Congress baiter critical of the disqualification and the BJP. Other Opposition leaders like Tamil Nadu chief minister M.K. Stalin, former Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray and others have also condemned the actions.
Secondly, this punishment has pushed other issues like Gandhi’s controversial speech in Cambridge, for which the BJP has stalled business in Parliament for the past ten days, to the sidelines. Parliament has not been functioning since it resumed after the recess on March 13 as the Opposition too stalled business, insisting on a Joint parliamentary probe into the Adani affair/
Thirdly, the timing of the verdict raises eyebrows. The defamation case has been in cold storage since 2019 and has now been dusted out.
Fourthly, though it is a psychological blow to Gandhi, his party, and even the entire Opposition, he will still be in the news and public gaze
The punishment can even get sympathy votes for Congress in the polls. However, it depends on how Gandhi and his party handle the situation and whether he can translate it into public sympathy and sustain it until the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. It needs delicate handling.
The Opposition can sustain the momentum by changing its narrative. The BJP should have realized the adage that one should never bring one’s opponent into the limelight.
In short, no politician is finished until he is finished. Gandhi need be no exception. His success depends on so many things. That includes how he handles the situation, whether he can get a higher court order to stay his verdict, how he sustains the momentum, how Congress changes its narrative for the 2024 polls, and above all, how the public reacts. The moral of the story is that politicians should control their tongues