On Democracy in India: The Rahul Gandhi case

Donald Trump in a campaign rally in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election remarked “Joe Ball, Joe Gallo, Joe Biden. Isn’t it funny how all criminals seem to have ‘Joe’ in their names?”. Joe Courtney, a member of the House of Representatives for the state of Connecticut, filed a defamation case against Trump, alleging he had illegally defamed all Joes across America. Three years later, a Connecticut court convicted Trump, sentencing him to two years in prison, and automatically disqualifying him from any political career under constitutional law.

If I saw this story on the news, I probably wouldn’t believe any of it (except, maybe, for Trump making the remark) — and I doubt you would either. Trump sentenced to prison for making a (rude, yet) silly remark about his campaign rival’s name? There is simply no way something so unnecessarily dramatic and ridiculously undemocratic happening in the United States of America. 

I would be right. It isn’t happening in America. It is, however, in India, to Rahul Gandhi — and the result is a grave backslide in democracy that India ought to fear.

Rahul, for some historical context, was born into the prominent Gandhi family, being great-grandson of founder of modern India Jawaharlal Nehru; grandson of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi; and son of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and his wife Sonia Gandhi (confusingly unrelated to Mahatma Gandhi). Rajiv was Prime Minister between 1984 and 1989, succeeding his assassinated mother Indira, before he himself was assassinated in 1991, prompting his Italian-born wife Sonia to enter politics. She was president of the Indian National Congress/INC (one of India’s two biggest parties, along with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party/BJP) between 1998 and 2017, and 2019 to 2022.

Rahul, who gained an MPhil from Trinity College Cambridge in 1995, became an MP in 2005, and succeeded his mother in leading the INC in 2017. He oversaw the party’s two worst general election performances in their history in 2017 and 2019, failing to even garner the 55-seat threshold of claiming the ‘opposition party’ moniker, and was succeeded once again by his mother — though he has remained the most prominent figure in his party since, especially given his mother’s Italian origins effectively preventing her from ever becoming Prime Minister.

In 2019, at a campaign rally leading to the election of the same year, Gandhi had said: “Why do all these thieves have Modi as their surname? Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi, Narendra Modi.” Nirav is an infamous diamond tycoon and wanted fugitive, Lalit a wanted fraudulent cricket administrator, and Narendra, the leader of the BJP, and the Prime Minister of India.

Soon after, Purnesh Modi, a BJP representative from a constituency in western state Gujarat (also Narendra Modi’s state), filed a criminal defamation case against Gandhi, stating he had defamed all those with the surname ‘Modi’. And, on 23 March 2023, the Gujarat court convicted Gandhi and sentenced him to two years in jail, constitutionally disqualifying the most prominent of Modi’s opposition leaders from continuing as an MP.

I must concede that the Trump-Joe comparison isn’t entirely sincere. India is known for its classification of groups and peoples known as ‘castes’ — effectively hierarchical groups or orders, but with three millennia of historical basis. Castes arrange rural communities, bestow privilege on upper castes, and repress lower castes – all of which was made significantly worse during colonial rule. For instance, my surname, Menon, also refers to the subcaste of the same name, which is part of the Nair caste from the southern state of Kerala – Menons were typically landlords or accountants (according to both Wikipedia and my grandmother, a retired history teacher). 

The caste system explains why Gandhi’s comments were more charged than they would have been had he made them in the US or here in the UK. Think of it as like classism, except with more of a ritualistic or even religious background, elements of segregation and endogamy, and no social mobility or opportunity. Though it is still practised in many parts of India, discrimination based on the caste system was banned by law in the Indian constitution. Purnesh, along with other members of the BJP in the government, deemed Gandhi’s remark a slur aimed at all those with the surname Modi – in their eyes, a surname that is typically associated with a lower caste, specifically, denunciation of OBCs, or ‘Other Backward Castes’.

Gandhi, however, has argued to the court that it a name associated with no specific caste or community – something the data backs up, with the government’s National Commission for Backward Classes finding no caste named Modi, and the surname used by a disparate group of communities across state and religious lines, ranging from Hindus to Muslims and even Parsis.

As such, the ruling of the court, and, therefore, the BJP’s attempt to remove the INC’s most prominent political leader, must be seen for what it is — the most prominent example of Modi’s India sliding further and further away from democracy. 

Modi has been no stranger to flagrant democratic sliding since his tenure began in 2014. Ideologically a Hindu nationalist and populist, his rule of India has seen the stripping of citizenship for Indian Muslims and an increase in attacks on persecuted religious minorities, particularly in the wartorn northern state of Kashmir, which has been long subject to a power struggle with neighbouring Muslim Pakistan. His premiership has largely seen the abandonment of the secular ideals of founder Nehru, instead shifting India towards being perceived as a Hindu nation, despite a fifth of its population being comprised of non-Hindus. 

Worryingly, it has also seen the use of state power to torture, arrest and intimidate journalists, media organisations, civil groups and academic critics, greatly undermining his citizens’ freedom of expression. Even the BBC was recently targeted, following a critical documentary that investigated Modi’s tenure as chief minister of Gujarat during violent riots that left over a thousand people, mostly Muslims, dead, deeming him ‘directly responsible’. Modi’s government condemned the documentary as “colonial propaganda”, and for “undermining the sovereignty and integrity of India”, banning it from being shared on social media, and subsequently investigated alleged financial irregularities in the company’s offices in India. Not to mention the undermining of the independence of India’s judiciary and watchdogs and its electoral process.

In light of all this, it’s difficult to see the conviction and disqualification of Gandhi as anything other than an autocratic political manoeuvre. 

Why does this matter? 

India is frequently referred to in the media as ‘the world’s largest democracy’, but the vast abuses that have been seen under Modi have seriously called this into question. The conviction of Gandhi, therefore, sets a dangerous precedent — that any dissent aimed towards Modi from a political opponent, even dissent in the form of a joke made four years ago, will not be tolerated by his administration, and will be met with the highest of consequences.

Modi remains hugely popular in India, particularly among its Hindu populations, and the weakening of its opposition parties, despite uniting in their criticism of the BJP on the Gandhi issue, will only increase this further. His administration can (and will) continue to boast its foreign policy strengths; under him, India’s ties with the US and Britain have been strengthened, with the latter countries presumably seeking the backing of one of Asia’s superpowers in their ongoing issues with Russia and China. As geopolitical relations between Russia/China and Western powers continue to get worse, the probability that they will speak up and call out the issues affecting India, perhaps their most powerful ally in the region, is slim. The country’s slide to authoritarianism would, ideally, be called out; yet, as long as they remain important to the West, our administrations may continue to ignore it.

With 18% of the Earth’s inhabitants, India is expected to overtake China and become the most populous country in the world within a few months. The removal of Rahul Gandhi as a Member of Parliament may not affect any of us here in the UK. But it signifies a dangerous trend – and the removal of democracy in the biggest nation in the world may end up being seen as nothing short of a global tragedy.

Image Description: An Indian Flag

Image Credits: Adam Jones via Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)