An India we want, one we deserve
The concentrated targeting of Rahul Gandhi is more likely derived from a playbook increasingly adopted by strongman leaders in the past 15 years. Among the many Machiavellian tricks recommended to right-wing leaders by modern political consultants, pollsters and data analysts is guidance on how to vanquish a political challenger long before the battle has begun.
Much of the commentary following the disqualification of Rahul Gandhi from the Lok Sabha has leaned toward saying that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is unnerved by the Congress leader pointing out his failures of governance. There have been a few: Our debatable response to China’s incursions, an economy that fails to ignite, and our regulatory slumber during the Adani blow-out. Rahul Gandhi himself believes he triggered the PM’s panic by asking him to explain his links to Gautam Adani, and the origin of a Rs 20,000 crore investment ploughed into the latter’s shell companies. However, Modi, who has in the past braved the fallout of demonetisation, the Godhra riots and the COVID-induced migrant labour exodus, is hardly likely to be troubled by such pinpricks. Nor is he likely to have been miffed by Rahul Gandhi’s wisecrack about thieves bearing the Modi surname. Having himself spoken of Sonia Gandhi as a “Jersey cow” and of Shashi Tharoor’s “Rs 50 crore girlfriend”, he is no stranger to acidic repartees.
The concentrated targeting of Rahul Gandhi is more likely derived from a playbook increasingly adopted by strongman leaders in the past 15 years. Among the many Machiavellian tricks recommended to right-wing leaders by modern political consultants, pollsters and data analysts is guidance on how to vanquish a political challenger long before the battle has begun. It requires the leader to identify a targeted challenger whose supporters are more likely to switch loyalties. Then proceed to humiliate him or her, denounce his family, denigrate his intelligence, his speech, etc. While this demoralises the challenger’s supporters, it also invisibilises all other potential alternatives, and makes it a straight match-up between him and the enfeebled challenger. If even that fails, disqualify him from elections, or imprison him.
These were the tactics that enabled Benjamin Netanyahu to defeat the widely-admired Shimon Peres in Israel in 1996. In the 2018 Russian presidential election, Putin’s challenger Alexei Navalny was disqualified by revoking the suspension of a sentence he had been given in a criminal case five years earlier. In the Belarus election in 2020, Alexander Lukashenko’s challenger Sergei Tikhanovsky was arrested two days after announcing his bid. After the latter’s wife Sviatlana stepped into the contest and disputed the final vote, she was hounded into exile.
RSS loyalists might recognise this as Chanakya Neeti and can crow that whatever the West discovered in the 21st century, India knew in 21 BC. What can Rahul Gandhi do now? The legalities of the Surat defamation case are what they are, and it’s safe to assume that the legal redress available to him will be protracted. While the higher courts do offer hope, there is the possibility that the Election Commission and the Speaker will inveigle themselves into the issue.
It’s a testament to Rahul Gandhi’s Forrest Gump-like tenacity that he says he won’t stop fighting. While the disqualification makes Parliament inaccessible to him, it also releases him to go to the people. Among the options available to him are to launch the East-West padayatra the Congress spoke about at its Raipur plenary, or other forms of people-connect. Going to the people was the option Indira Gandhi chose after she was disqualified from the Lok Sabha after winning a by-election from Bellary. For the people, not the courts or even Parliament, are the final arbiters of the question: What kind of India do we want?