Rahul Gandhi’s conviction by a Surat court for criminal defamation, his sentencing to two years’ imprisonment and his hasty disqualification from parliament should come as a wake-up call to the Congress. If there is any lesson to be learned, it is that the Congress must not even try to fight the 2024 elections on its own, or even in alliance with ‘like- minded parties’ as it did from 2004 till 2014, but in alliance with the entire opposition.
This message has struck home with the opposition, but not yet with the Congress. When Manish Sisodia was arrested and jailed on charges of bribery and money-laundering, leaders of eight opposition parties lodged a protest with the president of India, but the Congress was not among them. In sharp contrast, several opposition party leaders – M.K. Stalin of the DMK, Arvind Kejriwal of AAP, Hemant Soren of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party, Pinarayi Vijayan of the CPI(M), K. Chandrashekar Rao of the Bharat Rashtra Samithi, Mamata Banerjee of the TMC, Manoj Jha of the RJD and Clyde Crasto of Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party – have categorically condemned the attack on Rahul Gandhi. Five of them are the chief ministers of states – Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand, Delhi, Telangana, West Bengal and Kerala.
The main opposition parties are sparing no effort to make the Congress come on board. Among the first words that Akhilesh Yadav uttered to the assembled media upon his arrival in Kolkata last week were: “Raasta yeh nikaalna hai ki desh ka loktantra kaise bache. Samvidhan se desh kaise chale. Uske liye hum sab ek honge (We have to find a way to save our democracy. How to make sure that the country remains governed by our Constitution. For that, we will all come together).”
Predictably, the first question that the assembled newspersons asked him was “what will be the role of the Congress and the Left Front”. “The Congress and other groups have to decide their own roles. As far as the Samajwadi Party is concerned, so far as all the regional parties are concerned, for instance Telengana’s chief minister, Bihar’s chief minister… all of us are trying to make sure that we find a way (to unite) before the 2024 elections. No group should work in a way that damages secular forces,” he responded.
Mamata Banerjee, who greeted Akhilesh warmly, chose to remain silent, but the Trinamool Congress’s Sudip Bandyopadhyay voiced the opposition’s anxiety when, speaking for the TMC, he said: “The Congress should not behave like it is the “big boss” of the opposition.”
“For the time being,” he went on to add, “the TMC will keep its distance from both the BJP and the Congress.”
So great is the threat the opposition parties feel from Modi’s relentless assault on non-BJP state governments that even Naveen Patnaik, the chief minister of Odisha, who has made a fine art of non-involvement in national politics in order to maintain his autonomy in the state, has joined Mamata Banerjee in asserting that India’s federal structure must remain federal and strong.
The reservations on the issue of opposition unity that Congress leaders voiced during the Raipur AICC conference highlight the long road the opposition has still to travel if it wants to unseat the BJP government in 2024. They also highlight the growing realisation in the opposition, if not yet in the Congress, that the battle that looms ahead is not simply a battle to defeat a rival political party, but to save India’s unique democracy from destruction.
India is one of the few nation states in the world that rejected the notion that nationhood has to be based on an ethnically, linguistically or religiously homogenous population.
Unfortunately, BJP, and Messrs Modi and Shah in particular, believe Indian democracy’s tolerance of diversity and its willingness to foster the growth of civil society are manifestations of weakness. And they are – for personal even more than political reasons – bent upon destroying the very qualities that make Indian democracy unique. Bandyopadhyay’s remarks reflect the opposition’s hardening suspicion that despite the BJP’s sustained assault on the checks and balances in the Constitution that shore up India’s pluralist democracy, the Congress still does not realise that the Sangh parivar’s goal is not merely to win the 2024 elections but to create a totalitarian Hindu rashtra.
The longer the Congress allows this suspicion to take root, the more difficult will it become to form the united opposition that is needed to defeat the BJP in the 2024 elections. So if the party continues to dream of recovering lost glory on its own, and to regard every party that has ousted it from dominance anywhere in the country as its enemy, then the remaining regional parties will be left with no option but to form a Third Front to fight Modi’s BJP. Should that happen, the BJP will set off firecrackers in Gandhinagar and Vijay Chowk. For that is all it needs to come back to power in 2024.
Rahul Gandhi’s conviction on the charge of criminal defamation is therefore a wake-up call that the Congress cannot afford to ignore. It must face the fact that it can save not only India’s democracy, but itself, only by announcing that in the event of victory it will make no automatic claim to leadership of the coalition, and will allow its elected members to decide the issue.
The need for opposition unity is paramount now because as the 2024 elections have drawn near, Messrs Modi and Shah seem to have lost all sense of proportion and launched a no-holds-barred attack on opposition governments, seeking to defame their leaders and to imprison them indefinitely by charging them with corruption or money laundering and denying them bail.
Satyendar Jain, a minister in the AAP’s Delhi government, has been in jail for 15 months not only without trial, but without even a charge sheet having been drawn up against him by the Enforcement Directorate.
On November 17, 2022, a single-judge trial court in Delhi refused him bail yet again, on the grounds that “it had prima facie come on record that Jain was actually involved in concealing proceeds of crime by giving cash to Kolkata-based entry operators, and bringing the cash into three companies”. On whose record – the court’s or only the prosecution’s? Why is it necessary to keep an eminent party leader in jail awaiting trial, when he can be asked to wear a tracker that tells the police where he is at every moment of the day? Is this not meting out punishment without bothering to hold a trial? No one in the Congress has bothered to ask.
The arrest of Manish Sisodia in Delhi last month, and of Anil Deshmukh, Nawab Malik and Sanjay Raut in Maharashtra last year, are only the beginning of the wholesale demolition of India’s democracy that Modi’s BJP is bent upon. The most dangerous facet of its assault is the attempted subversion of the judiciary. The Modi government’s endless tirade against the collegium system for choosing high court and Supreme Court judges, is only the visible tip of this iceberg. Its more dangerous, submerged part is the progressive ‘saffronisation’ of the lower judiciary.
At Raipur, the only Congress leader who publicly advocated an unconditional coalition with the entire opposition and not just with ‘like-minded parties’, was Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. In two lucid speeches that deserved far more attention from the media than they got, she urged all opposition parties to join in and draft policies that would tackle growing unemployment, worsening income inequality, declining job security, increasingly dysfunctional education, the virtual disappearance of access to justice, and an ever increasing, ever more casual denial of the rights and freedoms guaranteed to the people by our Constitution.
Sadly, with Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi remaining silent on the issue at Raipur, no other Congress leader had the courage to propose such an abrupt descent from the imaginary Olympus in which most of the party still dwells. Rahul Gandhi’s remarks at his press conference on Saturday – made in response to a reporter’s question – that the opposition needs to work together going forward suggests the message is finally getting home.