Terms of Trade | Should Rahul Gandhi take the two-year jail term?
Here’s a counter-intuitive take: Embracing the sentence will generate moral capital for the Gandhi family, burnish his anti-establishment credentials, create sympathy, and perhaps improve his party’s fortunes in 2024
This edition of Terms of Trade marks one year since I started writing this weekly column. Most of my political commentary over the last year has been critically optimistic about the prospects of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). Critical, because it does not endorse some of the BJP’s policies and optimistic, because there does not seem to be an effective challenger to the BJP at the current juncture.
To be sure, part of the criticality or cynicism, if one may use the word to describe a belief in the near-term political invincibility of an ideology that one is critical of, also comes from the Gramscian dictum of pessimism of the intellect. In fact, one can argue that the daily job of a journalist is best captured by Karl Marx (even if dismissively) chiding the philosophers in his Theses on Feuerbach for only interpreting the world in different ways whereas the point is to change it.
As an exception or perhaps an exercise in self-indulgence, this edition of the column will take a break from being reconciled to interpreting the world every week and offer a prescriptive political argument that has the potential of changing it. To be sure, the idea is extreme enough to sound far-fetched (and it perhaps is), but read on.
Rahul Gandhi’s conviction
On March 23, a local court in Surat sentenced Rahul Gandhi to a two-year prison sentence for criminal defamation while speaking at an election rally in 2019. While the sentencing has been suspended for 30 days, a period he can use to go to higher courts, Gandhi has also been disqualified from the Lok Sabha and faces the prospect of a six-year disqualification from fighting elections. The reactions to the judgment, so far, can be classified into three kinds.
While the top leadership of the BJP is yet to react, many of its leaders have expressed vindication over the judgment and described it as a necessary indictment for Gandhi’s irresponsible speech. They argue that his comments were driven by his mala fide intentions to spread discord, defame an entire community, and undermine national interest.
The Congress appears to be mounting a simultaneous political and legal defence for Gandhi. Its leaders, some of whom are also accomplished lawyers, have argued that the conviction is not in keeping with the principles of the law as it is. The party has also, so far, steadfastly maintained that Gandhi will not tender an apology under any circumstances. This strategy of seeking legal relief while maintaining a political brave face is likely to result in prolonged legal processes. Gandhi faces the prospect of appearing in multiple courts from the Sessions Court to the Supreme Court in the run-up to the 2024 elections, a situation that suits the BJP.
And a final set of voices have used this case to suggest that criminal defamation on the law books is nothing but a repressive tool. Gandhi’s conviction, according to this line of argument, shows that even the rich and the powerful are vulnerable to persecution, and this only underlines the crushing impact such laws can have on the relatively unprotected. There is little doubt that India’s defamation laws need a re-examination, but given that free expression can’t be unqualified, a regime in power can always deploy a wide array of repressive tools to persecute opponents. In any case, this is a broader argument that will not have an immediate political impact.
The wider narrative against the Gandhi family
A digression may be in order here, so as to understand the BJP’s narrative against the Nehru-Gandhi family.
The BJP’s larger ecosystem argues that Jawaharlal Nehru, thanks to Mahatma Gandhi’s support, managed to capture the political leadership of the Congress, and as an extension, leadership of independent India by bypassing several more deserving leaders. The list of those marginalised, in the BJP’s rhetoric, includes Sardar Patel, BR Ambedkar and Subas Chandra Bose — this list is constantly evolving and growing, irrespective of the critical views these leaders may have held towards the BJP’s ideological predecessors.
Once Nehru captured this leadership, the argument goes, it has always stayed within his family and Rahul Gandhi is only an addition to this long line of nepotism and dynastic politics. The Congress’s sole agenda, therefore, is to restore the status-quo-ante where political power is returned to the Gandhi family in the country once again. This family always places its partisan interest on a higher pedestal than national interest and the BJP's biggest political contribution is to end this dynastic rule.
Why can’t the Gandhi family fight this narrative? This is where it is implicated for a list of political sins.
At the top of the heap of sins is the 1975 emergency. “The foremost beneficiary of the Emergency was the Hindu right. The RSS’s participation in the JP movement as well as the civil disobedience against the government during the Emergency gave it –notwithstanding some craven letters by its supremo to the prime minister – a legitimacy that it had hitherto lacked”, historian Srinath Raghavan wrote in an opinion piece in HT in March 2017.
Second, corruption allegations, both against the Gandhi family and past Congress-led governments, are another effective weapon in the BJP’s arsenal. Cases such as the ongoing Enforcement Directorate investigation in the National Herald case, where both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi faced questioning for days, have had a big impact in amplifying the BJP’s narrative that the family is inherently corrupt and is only using the Congress to seek retribution from the government for following the due process of law.
Irrespective of the merit of such specific allegations, the fact that the Gandhi family has led the Congress for so many decades makes it easier for the BJP to argue that there are complicit or active perpetrators of all corruption and misgovernance which happened under the Congress governments.
The Gandhi family’s predicament was best described by historian Ramchandra Guha in his biographical essay on Jawaharlal Nehru in the book Makers of Modern Asia. “As the sociologist André Beteille has remarked, the posthumous career of Jawaharlal Nehru has come increasingly to reverse a famous biblical injunction. In the bible, it is said that the sins of the father will visit seven successive generations. In Nehru’s case, the sins of daughter, grandsons, granddaughter-in-law, and great grandson have been retrospectively visited on him”, Guha writes.
Overturning this narrative
Gandhi’s team has already said that they will challenge the conviction. But what would happen if they were not to?
One, no citizen will believe that Rahul Gandhi is the only politician in this country who uses defamatory (even if the charge were taken at face value) language in political polemics. This makes it easier for the Congress to argue that it is more political vendetta than the law taking its own course in a non-partisan manner. Accepting this vendetta, rather than using resources which only the very rich have at their disposal to escape punishment, will generate moral capital for Gandhi.
Two, unlike the corruption cases against the Gandhi family, where the technical details are too complicated for the layperson to decipher, Rahul Gandhi’s alleged offence is out in the open and his refusal to disown or distance himself from the statement will actually send a message (at least among his supporters) that he is willing to walk the talk on his political polemics.
Politics, to use the cliched phrase, is an art of the possible and not bound by the law of the land or how judges chose to interpret it. Ultimately, the battle is won by those who manage to build hegemonic support for their ideas. The BJP’s approach to the Ram temple question is the best example for this argument. For a long time, until the mosque was demolished, the BJP was unwilling to yield to judicial wisdom on this issue. The Congress needs to fight a similar perception battle if it wants political traction for its corruption allegations against the current government. Rahul Gandhi has no choice but to lead from the front here. This is his best shot at being seen as leading civil disobedience.
The third argument is central to Gandhi’s self-proclaimed political persona. Right from the time when he entered active politics, Gandhi tried to portray himself as an anti-establishment voice, except that he was born into a family which is the biggest symbol of India’s political establishment. Gandhi once tore the ordinance introduced by the Manmohan Singh government to protect convicted legislatures from losing their membership. If Gandhi chooses to go to jail, it will strengthen his narrative that his fight with the powers-that-be is not just cosmetic but real.
This idea might sound counterintuitive and far-fetched, but facing State repression — for this is how the Congress is already describing the punishment — during the freedom struggle and the Emergency played a big role in building the popularity of at least two generations of mass leaders in India. Rahul Gandhi has not faced this until now. Baptism by fire will help. In the wake of the Bharat Joda Yatra, where Gandhi’s entire self-projection was of a tapasvi following the path of the Mahatma, this offers an opportunity to be a satyagrahi.
If Gandhi does choose to embrace this strategy, where does this leave the Congress? A recap of developments five years ago suggests that it is in an unenviable position.
Remember, in 2018, the Congress formed governments in Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. However, its performance in the 2019 general elections turned out to be a damp squib, largely because the party completely collapsed in these four states. There is nothing to suggest that favourable outcomes in these state elections, even in the party’s best-case scenario over the next eight months, will not be followed by a 2019-type collapse in the 2024 general elections.
The larger takeaway for the party is simple. It is still dependent on Rahul Gandhi to mount an effective national challenge to the Narendra Modi-led BJP. But Rahul Gandhi the politician seems incapable of either matching the BJP’s Machiavellian strategists or moving popular opinion with his “save democracy and institutions” rhetoric.
Maybe things will change if the Congress is fighting the 2024 elections with Gandhi behind bars for having committed an offence which an overwhelming majority of Indians will not see as one. This might bring much-needed credibility to what Rahul Gandhi has been saying all this while.
To be sure, how the majority perceives Gandhi’s crime and punishment is also going to be a function of how his party and the BJP spin it.
If the Congress cannot mobilise support for itself even with Rahul Gandhi in jail, then it is time for India’s GOP to infer that it should finally start looking for a future without the Gandhi family. In that case, Gandhi’s subsequent disqualification from fighting elections will not matter. To conclude, a two-year jail term for one person is a perfectly reasonable bet to decide the fortunes of a party which was established in 1885.
Every Friday, HT’s data and political economy editor, Roshan Kishore, combines his commitment to data and passion for qualitative analysis in a column for HT Premium, Terms of Trade. With a focus on one big number and one big issue, he will go behind the headlines to ask a question and address political economy issues and social puzzles facing contemporary India.
The views expressed are personal