Following his disqualification as the Member of Parliament, the future of Rahul Gandhi along with that of Congress party is now under question.
With its de facto leader out of electoral politics, how the Congress party navigates this key electoral year would be interesting to see. With six assembly elections yet to take place this year, the year would set the tone for the 2024 general elections.
In the short term, Rahul's conviction and disqualification are likely to cast a shadow over assembly elections in Karnataka where Congress is seeking to oust the ruling BJP. Besides Karnataka, key states of Rajasthan and Chattisgarh also go to polls this year, both of which are ruled by the Congress.
The disqualification as an MP is a great turaround for Rahul, who was just two months ago leading massive crowds in Bharat Jodo Yatra, and was being hailed for reviving the Congress. The Yatra also accompanied calls for the grand old party to be the fulcrum of any coalition challenging Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2024. Now that the party scion stands disqualified and there is a cloud whether he can even contest the 2024 general election, the road ahead for Rahul as well as his party is under question.
The cloud over Rahul's candidature in 2024 general election comes from the law that says disqualified lawmakers remain disqualified for six years after their sentence is completed.
Rahul could be disqualified from 2024 polls
As per the Lok Sabha Secretariat notification on Friday, Rahul has been disqualified as an MP of Wayanad constituency under Section 8 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, which is enabled by Article 102 (1) (e) of Constitution of India, which says a lawmaker can be disqualified under any law enacted by the Parliament. Section 8 of the Representation of People Act, 1951 says a lawmaker sentenced to not less than two years will be disqualified.
Moreover, the law says the disqualified lawmaker stands disqualified even after their release from the jail.
"A person convicted of any offence and sentenced to imprisonment for not less than two years other than any offence referred to in sub-section (1) or sub-section (2) shall be disqualified from the date of such conviction and shall continue to be disqualified for a further period of six years since his release," says Section 8 (2) of Representation of People Act, 1951, making Rahul ineligible for 2024 general elections if he is unable to get the conviction revoked by the higher courts.
Rahul has been convicted and sentenced for two years in a defamation case by a court in Surat in Gujarat. If he cannot get his conviction and sentencing revoked from higher courts, Rahul is set to be disqualified from contesting 2024 elections.
Not necessarily bad for Rahul-Congress: Political expert
The shadow of Rahul's conviction and disqualification is not necessarily going to be negative, says political expert Tanvir Aeijaz.
While it's for the Judiciary to see whether Rahul remains convicted and disqualified, the public support is expected to rise in the wake of "political vendetta" he is facing, says Aeijaz, Associate Professor at Ramjas College, University of Delhi.
He tells Outlook, "The stature of Rahul Gandhi is expected to further rise as the whole issue is an effort of the BJP to target him. In this sense, he will have more acceptance now and is likely to emerge as a bigger leader as this could give a big boost to his public image."
Aeijaz says the nature of the case would drive people to the conclusion that the conviction and disqualification is out of political vendetta. The defamation case too, notes Aeijaz, is not a very serious offence that could sway the public sentiment against Rahul.
"Had it been a very serious case like one of corruption or some other serious offence, then everyone would have accepted the action. But it will now be seen as political vendetta and Rahul will gain public sympathy. It's a norm that the more the Opposition leaders are targeted with draconian laws, the more it helps the Opposition," says Aeijaz, adding that the higher courts are likely to overrule the conviction as it's not a very strong case.
Drawing a comparison with Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975, Aeijaz said, "Just like the Opposition emerged powerful after Emergency, the Opposition as well as the Congress party are expected to emerge powerful now. The Congress will make all sorts of efforts for it."
The great turnaround for Rahul
Just two months back, Rahul concluded the Kanniyakumari-to-Kashmir Bharat Jodo Yatra of the Congress party in Srinagar that saw widespread participation of cadre and public figures.
In flowy beard and half-sleeve shirt, Rahul covered the length of the country and emerged as a politician far from the one prone to gaffes seen in WhatsApp forwards. Not only he targeted Modi and the BJP, he phrased his movement as one for the soul of India. At one point, he even said Rahul Gandhi is in the mind of others and he himself has killed him. This led observers to wonder whether Rahul is on a deeper philosohical evolution that often covers with long-distance foot-journeys — history has many examples from Mahatma Gandhi to Prince Siddhartha who became Buddha.
In 28 November 2022 issue of Outlook, we explored the Bharat Jodo Yatra of Rahul Gandhi and what it means for him. In the issue titled "Walk the Talk", we explored whether the Yatra could be game-changer for the Congress party, particularly as India has traditions of such marches mobilising the party, ranging from the Rath Yatra of Lal Krisha Advani to Chandra Shekhar's Bharat Yatra in 1983 that earned him the name of 'Marathon Man'.
In his story, Peerzada Muzamil noted that though Rahul appears to be evolving into a different kind of leader at the time, it could be unwise to draw too much of a connection between Yatra's success and electoral gains of Congress. Actually, such a connection would be incorrect entirely.
Peerzada noted, "To keep its ship afloat in the electoral politics of the country, the Congress needs to win elections to revive and survive, and the Bharat Jodo Yatra is just a small and important step in the long journey that the party has to endure. In other words, the yatra’s primary aim is not winning the Congress polls but to catapult the party to a place from where it will be in a better position to focus on elections in future."
In a conversation with Ashutosh Bhardwaj, actor Sushant Singh drew a comparison of Rahul's Bharat Jodo Yatra with Sunil Dutt's yatra in 1987.
"The only padayatra I remember before this was undertaken by Sunil Dutt saahab in 1987, when he walked some 2000 kms from Bombay to Amritsar to establish harmony and brotherhood when Punjab was facing heightened militancy...Decades later, I was impressed by the vision and scale of the Bharat Jodo Yatra in a climate of hate and bigotry. Rahul Gandhi clearly said that it’s not a Congress yatra; it is a yatra for Bharat," said Singh.
In his article, senior journalist Harish Khare noted that the Gandhi family and the Congress party are undergoing a transformation that's good for the Indian democracy. However, he acknowledges that a complete transition of the party beyond Gandhis is not that easy.
"A complete transition to a non-Gandhi Congress will not be without its convulsions. Habits, procedures and protocols instituted these last two decades will not get discarded overnight. However, a regime change is unavoidable for the simple reason that the ‘dynasty’ is a theme song that is no longer heard in Narendra Modi’s ‘New India’. The Gandhi family is in transition, so is the Congress. The Congress may soon find itself on the verge of a grand transformation. And that should augur well for Indian democracy," notes Khare.
Now that the Congress scion stands disqualified and the party is headed by a non-Gandhi, it remains to be seen how the party is steered. Read Outlook's 28 November 2022 issue "Walk the Talk" here.
Not the first controversy for Rahul
The defamation case in which Rahul Gandhi has been convicted is not the first time that he has attracted controversy.
Over the years, Rahul has sharply attacked the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the BJP, and the RSS. These controversies range from catchy phrases in election campaigns to speeches and interactions abroad.
1. 'Chowkidaar chor hai'
In the run-up to the 2019 general elections, Rahul coined the phrase "chowkidaar chor hai" (the watchman is a thief) to target Modi. Moreover, he attributed the phrase to the Supreme Court.
However, the phrase backfired as Modi, fellow BJP leaders, and supporters responded with "Main bhi chowkidaar" (I am also a watchman) phrase to express solidarity with Modi. Along with the allegations of corruption in the acquisition of Rafale fighter planes for the Indian Air Force, the phrase failed to generate traction for Rahul.
Moreover, Rahul submitted an unconditional apology to the Supreme Court for attributing to it the phrase in response to a defamation case filed against him.
2. 'Rape in India'
At a rally in Jharkhand in 2019, Rahul said that while Modi promised 'Make in India', the country is witnessing 'Rape in India'. A sedition case was filed in response to the comment.
3. Rahul called RSS a secret society like Muslim Brotherhood
Lately, Rahul has been in the news for the uproar over his criticism of the BJP, RSS, and Modi during his visit to the United Kingdom.
In the UK, Rahul criticised the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and called it "fascist" and a secret society. He also compared it with the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organisation rooted in Egypt that's also designated as a terrorist organisation.
On RSS, Rahul said, "You can call it a secret society. It’s built along the lines of the Muslim Brotherhood and the idea is to use the democratic contest to come to power and then subvert the democratic contest afterwards."
Rahul also accused the RSS of capturing Indian institutions ranging from the press to constitutional bodies like the Election Commission.
He said, "It’s shocked me at how successful they’ve been at capturing the different institutions of our country: the press, judiciary, Parliament, Election Commission – all the institutions are under pressure, under threat and controlled in one way or another."