Dear Express Reader,
Rahul Gandhi has become an ex-MP, and the drama that led to his forced exit from the House this week is not about the law on defamation. Of course, we need to talk about whether a modern democracy should treat defamation as a criminal offence, given its chilling effects on free speech, political opposition and dissent. But that’s a separate debate for a different time.
There are abundant instances, after all, on the other side of the political fence, of “defamatory” speech against individuals and communities that has not been proceeded against under the same law with similar alacrity – just listen to Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath in UP. For now, then, it is the politics of the defamation law’s application, its selective invocation, not the law itself, that is most controversial.
It’s not about the other law either, Section 8(3) of the Representation of the People Act, which mandates automatic disqualification after conviction. Should the legal bar be raised for disqualification of an elected MLA or MP – this, too, is a debate for another moment.
This episode isn’t about the politics of entitlement and its inevitable comeuppance, too, or anti-backward-caste-ism, for that matter – even though, as in his latest press conference, Rahul Gandhi’s own conduct continues to provide grist to at least one of those BJP mills. Rahul appeared peevish and petulant, and yes, entitled, as he accused a reporter, who was asking him questions, of working for the BJP.
But the bare fact is this – Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification cannot be separated from its bristling political context.
This political context includes the unprecedented stalling of Parliament by members of government and the ruling party, demanding an apology for remarks he made on India in London recently. And the recent de-planing by the police of his colleague Pawan Khera for a comment on PM Modi. Framed in both instances, the deliberate overreading of criticism of PM/government as incitement of public disaffection and/or defamation of state/community, has become a hallmark of present-day politics.
The political context is also made of the arrests of two senior AAP ministers, Satyendar Jain and Manish Sisodia, in Delhi. Notwithstanding the merits of their respective cases, ED-CBI action against the then AAP ministers is striking, most of all, for its perfect fit in a pattern of central agencies targeting leaders of non-BJP parties only.
If, so far, the Modi government’s thin skin and its use of the hard law as blunt instrument was disquietingly on show in its targeting of civil society actors and activists, the recent spate of arrests of leaders of the Opposition signals a sobering new turn in the script.
But it is at this point, having acknowledged that the matter is political, not legal nor inevitable, that the problem begins – ironically enough, it is problematic more for the Congress and Rahul Gandhi, than for PM Modi and BJP.
While the politics of vindictiveness has touched new lows on the watch of the Modi establishment, for the moment there is little or no evidence that it is an issue that resonates electorally.
For the Congress, in particular, the problem seems to be this: Even as Rahul’s disqualification as MP pits him directly against Modi in newspaper headlines and the social media back-and-forth, on ground level, Rahul is a much smaller figure still. Despite the Bharat Jodo Yatra, he is not even one of the main characters in the political story.
I travelled to cover the Gujarat election while the Yatra was on, and reported on the political conversation from the Delhi street after the Yatra came to an end more recently. On both occasions, it seemed clear that in the voter imagination, Rahul continues to be an unvivid presence. In Delhi, for instance, the anti-Modi space is conspicuously captured by Arvind Kejriwal, who also lays claim to more affirmative reasons for the electorate’s support and sympathy.
If taking Rahul to the people remains a challenge despite his arduous 4,000 km marathon, the Rahul-disqualification drama has also thrown up a larger problem for the Opposition in the time of Modi.
Rahul isn’t the perfect victim, but even the cause – politics of vindictiveness against the political opponent, misuse of law and weaponisation of agencies – is not one that finds always-already traction among the people.
A range of factors can come in the way. Many point out that the underlying malaise is not new, even though it may manifest in different times differently. Those who are cynical and pessimistic regard it as the hardball tactic of a brutish power game, while the optimistic view it as something that will be corrected by the system’s checks and balances that will kick in eventually.
Overall, in a system that withholds more than it gives, hides more than it reveals, and suffers from a long-running problem of weak institutionalisation of accountability, the people’s tolerance for cloak-and-dagger politics cannot be underestimated. Many will even draw vicarious satisfaction, if not a sense of empowerment, from someone or anyone powerful being brought low.
Certainly, Rahul’s disqualification from Parliament shows how the BJP is, under cover of law, sending out a chilling message to the dissenter and the political opponent. But for the Congress and the Opposition, there is no ready-made halo to be picked up and worn. The hard labour of politics for framing the issue and taking it to the people remains to be done.
Till next week,
courtesy Indian Express
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