The BJP’s blitzkrieg against Congress leader Rahul Gandhi is only expected to get shriller with a Gujarat court now sentencing him to two years in prison (though the sentence has been suspended for 30 days) in connection with a 2019 criminal defamation case. The verdict could technically pave the way for Rahul’s suspension from the Lok Sabha if his sentence is not stayed or suspended by a higher court.
The setback from the court, and the serious political repercussions it will now trigger for Rahul, come at a time when he and his party have been relentlessly pursuing the demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe into various allegations against controversial industrialist Gautam Adani and his group of companies. A majority of Opposition parties have rallied behind the Congress’ demand for a JPC probe. This has led to renewed talks of the possibility of a united Opposition front taking shape ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls to take on the BJP.
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The BJP, meanwhile, has been singularly focused on pushing Rahul into a corner. In an unprecedented move, the Treasury Benches have been repeatedly derailing Parliament proceedings since the second leg of the Budget Session commenced on March 13, accusing Rahul of making “anti-India remarks” during his recent visit to London. A number of Union ministers and sundry BJP leaders have charged the Wayanad MP of urging the USA, the UK and other European nations of “intervening in India’s democracy”.
The BJP wants Rahul to apologise unconditionally for “maligning India’s image” abroad while he has resolutely rejected the proposition and remained steadfast on his demand for a JPC probe into the Adani issue. The Surat court’s judgment now gives the BJP more ammunition to come charging at the Wayanad MP even more fiercely.
To many, the BJP’s rambunctious attacks against Rahul may seem counter-productive for the BJP as they keep the focus on the one Opposition politician that the saffron combine routinely dismisses as a failed leader. Given that Rahul evidently is unperturbed by this vicious targeting and has only become more boisterous in his attacks against Modi and the BJP, this hyperventilation by the regime only brings more focus on what the Wayanad MP has been saying.
Yet, the ongoing slugfest, perhaps, also gives away the stratagems of political rhetoric that the BJP could employ against Rahul and the Congress as a host of assembly polls and the next general elections draw closer.
The BJP wants Rahul to apologise for the “anti-national” remarks, which he says he did not make. Even Vice President Jagdeep Dhankhar, who in his avatar as Rajya Sabha chairman is expected to be non-partisan, has publicly expressed his displeasure at Rahul’s “misplaced campaign to taint and tarnish our Parliament and Constitution”.
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In what may be easily construed as a disturbing display of partisan steering of House proceedings, Dhankhar has repeatedly allowed Leader of the House Piyush Goyal to slam Rahul while inexplicably sitting over demands by Leader of Opposition Mallikarjun Kharge and other Opposition MPs to give a ruling on whether allegations and attacks can be allowed against a member of one House of Parliament at proceedings of the other House of Parliament.
The Congress and its like-minded parties have, meanwhile, maintained that the BJP’s attacks at Rahul are meant to divert attention from the Adani issue. For the Congress, however, there are enough reasons why it can’t wish away the BJP’s unremitting broadside as just another rattled response against Rahul.
It would be naive of the Congress to assume that the BJP’s acerbic attacks against Rahul are merely meant to divert focus from the allegations of “manipulation and fraud” that the Hindenburg Report has made against the Adani Group or from the Opposition’s demand for a JPC probe into the controversial billionaire’s business practices. Even if the BJP’s tirade against Rahul unwittingly adds to his political heft, the saffron party’s attacks seem to be steadily building towards a narrative against Rahul that the Congress has, in the past, found difficult to counter electorally.
The past 10 days have made it evident that the BJP is willing to risk derailment of the most crucial session of Parliament – the Budget Session but, more importantly, the party is willing to do so at the risk of proving Rahul’s ‘democracy under attack in India’ charge and by adding weight to his repeated allegations of the Prime Minister being a willing hostage to the business interests of Gautam Adani.
Even before the Gujarat court’s verdict gave BJP a legal technicality to exploit for moving a motion in the Lok Sabha to seek Rahul’s disqualification from the House, some BJP members – most notably, Godda MP Nishikant Dubey – had been lobbying for getting the Wayanad MP suspended from Parliament. Surely, any such action could prove counterproductive for the BJP and make Rahul a political martyr for not just his existing supporters but also among those who are getting disillusioned with the Modi regime’s autocratic functioning style.
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Why then is the BJP taking such a risk? A chronological perspective is essential to understand where the BJP’s latest assault on Rahul is coming from – and, perhaps, where it is headed to.
The Wayanad MP had, on January 30, concluded his five-month-long Bharat Jodo Yatra; walking over 4,000 km across the length of the country from Kanyakumari to Srinagar. Through the course of the yatra, lakhs of ordinary citizens had voluntarily joined the walkathon and found common cause with the issues Rahul was raising – the urgent need to arrest and reverse spiralling unemployment, and rising prices of essential commodities, preserve communal harmony and combat the politics of hate, et al.
The yatra had helped Rahul shed his image of an insincere politician. The gruelling walkathon had shaped a Rahul who could articulate an alternate political vision for India compared to the one espoused by Modi’s BJP, even if the Congress still lacked grassroots apparatus and political savvy to convert this goodwill into an electoral harvest.
At the 85th Plenary Session of the Congress party in Raipur last month, it was decided that a second, albeit hybrid, leg of the BJY would be launched later this year to cover the breadth of the country; traversing through states and regions that the first walkathon had skipped.
The expectation from BJY 2.0 was that it would allow Rahul to keep up his attacks at the Centre on emotive poll issues of price rise, joblessness and communal or social strife at a time when big states such as Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan – all states where the Congress is the BJP’s main rival – and Telangana were all bound for polls and the 2024 Lok Sabha polls were fast approaching.
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Rahul had also begun dropping broad hints about the Congress’ indispensable role in cobbling together a united Opposition front against the BJP for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. As Parliament’s Budget Session began last month, signs of the grand old party, with its newly elected national president Mallikarjun Kharge, succeeding in getting over a dozen Opposition outfits to unitedly attack the BJP on various fronts were also visible. Even the AAP and K. Chandrasekhar Rao’s Bharat Rashtra Samithi – both outfits that until recently stridently sought to undermine the Congress – shed their full-throated criticism of Rahul and his party.
Meanwhile, the BJP’s obtuse criticism of Rahul’s shoes, T-shirt and growing beard through the course of the BJY had found little traction beyond the expected quarters of the Hindutva ecosystem while the Congress was, finally, having a field day showing off the impressive plaudits coming in for its most prominent leader.
Then the Hindenburg Report added a ballast of believability to Rahul’s repeated allegations about Adani receiving preferential treatment from the Modi regime. Predictably the Congress jumped at it, as did a number of Opposition parties who had been struggling for nearly a decade to find some ammunition that could tear through Modi’s Teflon armour.
That the report and the political storm it triggered in India irked the Prime Minister is evident from the extent to which the BJP has gone to defend one businessman. The ruling party has also got any joint mention of Modi and Adani by MPs, Rahul and Kharge included, expunged from Parliamentary records.
Nationalism at core
Modi’s refusal to acknowledge the Adani controversy as a political challenge and to instead fall back on his formula of brushing aside India’s achievements of the past seven decades – nearly six of them under Congress rule – as non-events while showcasing his regime as the time when India was finally delivered from the Dark Ages only showed that Rahul had, indeed, touched a raw nerve.
But then, just as the BJP was trying to seek refuge in whataboutery and bombastic claims of unprecedented development during the Modi years, came Rahul’s comments in London about the strain in India’s democratic traditions. What the Wayanad MP said during his interactions in London was clearly not new and, as Congress communication department chief Jairam Ramesh pointed out, had been said by Rahul multiple times at various political events in India.
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However, the fact that these statements were re-iterated by Rahul on foreign soil and were later cherry-picked and twisted by the BJP ecosystem, has allowed the Modi regime to build a narrative of jingoistic hyper-nationalism which the Congress has rarely ever been able to respond to electorally. It is, perhaps, not a coincidence that even Adani, when the Hindenburg Report first came out, had sought refuge against the allegation under this same cloak of nationalism by claiming an attempt by foreign powers and vested interests to tarnish India’s image.
Over the past fortnight, the BJP has sought to push this same narrative even more fiercely, wherein Modi is the nationalist whose patriotism and contributions to India are beyond reproach while Rahul is the “anti-national” out to “malign India” on a world stage. Other iterations of the same narrative are then pushed by Hindutva cheerleaders at the grassroots and on social media platforms where Modi is the ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’ working tirelessly to restore the primacy and pride of India’s religious majority while Rahul is patron-in-chief of the so-called Tukde Tukde Gang, whose co-travellers are Urban Naxals, Left liberals or Muslims.
This is the trajectory that the BJP appears to be preparing for its poll rhetoric against Rahul, and by extension against the Congress, as the Lok Sabha polls draw closer. Whether the saffron party has overplayed this trick and is now unwittingly making a martyr out of Rahul is difficult to predict.
The Congress has been resisting the pull of this trap but given the nature of allegations being hurled at Rahul and also the temptation to exploit the allegations made against Modi’s closest businessman, Adani, in the Hindenburg Report, the grand old party seems to have turned its multi-pronged attack at the regime on issues of price rise, unemployment, communal strife, growing social and economic inequity, BJP’s autocratic rule, shrinking space for dissent, etc. into a hugely limited broadside focused almost entirely on the Adani issue or on defending Rahul. The BJP couldn’t have asked for more.