Monday, 27 March 2023 06:57

India’s ruling party just kicked a major rival out of Parliament — and sparked a new crisis

Rahul Gandhi at a rally in 2020.

For years, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has attacked the foundations of his country’s democracy. His government has rewritten election rules in its favor, assailed the rights of the Muslim minority, jailed anti-government protesters, and reined in the free press.

On Friday morning, it took another major step in an authoritarian direction: kicking Modi’s principal rival, Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi, out of office and disqualifying him from competing in future elections.

The pretext for this move was Gandhi’s conviction on defamation charges a day earlier.

In 2019, in the midst of national elections, Gandhi made a joke about people with the last name “Modi” being thieves — citing a wealthy fugitive, a crooked cricketer, and the incumbent prime minister as examples. In response, a politician from Modi’s BJP party named Purnesh Modi filed a criminal complaint in which he accused Gandhi of defaming the “Modi community.”

On Thursday, a court ruled against Gandhi, sentencing him to two years in prison for his attempt at campaign trail humor (a sentence that won’t be implemented for at least 30 days). The BJP-controlled Parliament moved swiftly to boot Gandhi and prevent him from holding office again.

If this all seems fishy, that’s because it is.

India’s defamation law is notoriously punitive, owing partly to the legacy of British colonial speech restrictions. Historically, Indian governments and other powerful actors have used it as a tool to suppress speech they don’t like. Under Modi, these longstanding problematic laws have been deployed as part of a systematic campaign to strengthen their hold on power.

“This government has not invented any new tools; they’re just much more purposive and efficient in deploying them,” says Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They campaigned on a pledge to bring about a ‘Congress-mukt’ Bharat (Congress-free India). This is just one element of this larger strategy.”

It’s a risky move. India’s citizens still have very favorable views of democracy; there’s a potential for something as nakedly authoritarian as kicking your chief political opponent out of office to backfire against Modi. But that’s very much still an “if”: Modi is extremely popular, and Gandhi is not known as an especially adept politician.

There’s a real possibility, then, that Modi’s government gets away with yet another brazen assault on the country’s beleaguered democracy.

What happened with Gandhi

To understand the importance of Gandhi’s disqualification, we need to first understand how it happened and what it says about modern India that it happened at all.

The defamation provisions used against Gandhi, parts 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code, date back to the 1860s, when India was a British colony. Section 499 presents a fairly loose definition of “defamation” and what is required to prove it in court; Section 500 makes the crime punishable by up to two years in prison.

While many advanced democracies retain criminal defamation laws, and some even occasionally use them, India’s law is strikingly broad and subject to abuse. After India’s Supreme Court upheld the legality of criminal defamation in a 2016 ruling, legal scholars and political scientists warned that the laws would continue to pose a serious threat to free speech in the country.

“The law as it stands exposes India to ridicule; it is so out of sync with the law in the democratic world on all the major points in issue,” Indian lawyer and political commentator A.G. Noorani wrote in The Hindu newspaper.

In the years since, the political context has shifted in ways that make these laws even more dangerous.

Narendra Modi, who primarily campaigned as a principled economic reformer when he first won office in 2014, has demonstrated increasingly authoritarian tendencies. This has included a willingness to wield criminal law in order to silence his political opponents. One example: a series of 2020 prosecutions targeting opposition politicians, civil rights activists, and academics under sedition and counterterrorism laws.

In its 2023 report, the pro-democracy watchdog Freedom House noted that such tactics had become a consistent feature of Modi’s increasingly authoritarian rule — noting, for example, data suggesting a 28 percent increase in sedition charges between 2014 and 2020.

“Authorities have used security, defamation, sedition, and hate speech laws, as well as contempt-of-court charges, to quiet critical voices in the media,” Freedom House finds. “Activists, Muslims, and members of other marginalized communities are routinely charged with sedition for criticizing the government and its policies.”

Youth Congress protest against union budget, Kolkata
A protest in Kolkata in February 2023.

The case against Gandhi is a continuation of this pattern. Though initially filed in 2019 in the city of Surat, located in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, it had been put on hold for years — only to be revived in February of this year. The timing is suspect: The Wire, an Indian online outlet, notes that the motion was filed by a Modi ally only a week after Gandhi launched a major attack against the prime minister’s ties to disgraced businessman Gautam Adani.

The Wire also notes that the case has serious legal flaws. In criminal allegations that a group is being defamed — like people named Modi — it needs to be shown that the group constitutes a distinct entity with collective interests and a group reputation that could be besmirched.

“[I]t is difficult to contend that those with the surname Modi constitute a community, which was distinct from others, and that Rahul Gandhi intended to defame such a community,” its analysis concludes.

For this reason, it is entirely possible that Gandhi’s conviction is overturned on appeal.

But to the Lok Sabha, the BJP-controlled lower house of India’s Parliament, that didn’t matter. The chamber acted almost immediately after conviction to kick Gandhi out of its ranks. The swiftness of the move was striking to Indian observers, effectively giving Gandhi no grace period to contest the dubious ruling.

“Despite the ridiculous conviction for defamation for 2 years by the Surat court, the sentence was stayed for 30 days for Rahul to appeal. But within a day, the Lok Sabha sect has disqualified him!” eminent Indian litigator Prashant Bhushan noted on Twitter.

“All to prevent him from speaking on Adani.”

What the Gandhi disqualification says about India’s democracy

Gandhi’s conviction and removal from Parliament illustrate, more than anything else, the continuing deterioration of India’s democracy and Modi’s and his allies’ authoritarian bent.

In 2021, V-DEM — the leading academic metric of democracy around the world — found that India no longer met its minimal standards for qualifying as a democracy of any kind, downgrading it to an “electoral autocracy.” In its explanation for the change, V-DEM noted the use of sedition and defamation laws as integral to India’s anti-democratic slide.

“India’s autocratization process has largely followed the typical pattern for countries ... over the past ten years: a gradual deterioration where freedom of the media, academia, and civil society were curtailed first and to the greatest extent,” V-DEM argues.

But even in this broader context, attacking the leading figure in the opposition is unusually brazen. Rahul Gandhi leads the Congress party, the dominant political faction in India for decades after independence and the traditional champion of Indian secularism and liberal democracy (with some glaring exceptions). He is the direct descendant of India’s most famous post-independence leaders, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.

Though long seen as an incompetent and out-of-touch leader, that reputation had reportedly started to change in recent months. Between September 2022 and January 2023, he embarked on a pilgrimage — called the Bharat Jodo (“Unite India”) Yatra — across 2,200 miles of Indian territory. The demonstration, which evoked a tradition of political yatras in India, was designed as an act of protest against Modi’s politics of division and targeting of the Muslim minority. It seems to have done real work in rehabilitating Gandhi and his buckling Congress party in general.

In this context, then, going after Gandhi poses significant risks for Modi. His regime has not formally repudiated democracy in the way that older authoritarian movements like fascism did. Like similar modern autocrats in places like Hungary and Israel, he still depends on support from a public that believes in the basic ideals of representative government.

Therefore, he needs to sell his government as authentically democratic, not nakedly repressive. Kicking Gandhi out of Parliament does not formally weaken Congress in any sense, and it creates an opportunity for the opposition to highlight the true nature of Modi’s regime.

“This is largely a psychological blow to the opposition,” Vaishnav tells me. “Rahul Gandhi can still command media and popular attention when he is not a member of Parliament,”

Yet for such a tactic to work, it requires Gandhi to translate it into more than just sympathetic coverage. And observers of India are skeptical that he and his allies in Congress leadership have the power to make that happen, especially given the BJP’s increasingly tight control over the Indian political system and mass media.

“He has the potential to exploit his ‘victimhood’ for political gain, but I am not confident he will be able to do this,” Vaishnav continues. “Even after his yatra, pundits said Bharat Jodo Yatra would be step 1 of a larger rehabilitation plan only if it was followed by additional steps to sharpen the opposition’s ideological positioning and build the Congress organization. We have not seen much headway on either of those fronts.”

Gandhi’s arrest has the potential to be a turning point in the dark post-2014 story of Indian democracy. But Modi is a capable and canny authoritarian, and putting a real dent in his political armor will be a difficult challenge for India’s weakened opposition.