The Gandhi clan returns

Fast sah es so aus, als könnte Premier Modi ohne große Gegenwehr die Wahlen 2024 bestreiten. Doch nun hat das Oberste Gericht für Rahul Gandhi den Rückweg in die Politik frei gemacht. Wird Indiens Opposition den Schub nützen?
Fast sah es so aus, als könnte Premier Modi ohne große Gegenwehr die Wahlen 2024 bestreiten. Doch nun hat das Oberste Gericht für Rahul Gandhi den Rückweg in die Politik frei gemacht. Wird Indiens Opposition den Schub nützen?

It looked as though Prime Minister Modi would be able to contest the 2024 elections without much opposition. But now the Supreme Court has cleared the way for Rahul Gandhi to return to politics. Will India's opposition take advantage of this boost? By Arne Perras

By Arne Perras

A female supporter shook pink flowers over his head, and Rahul Gandhi put his hand to his heart in thanks. It was a good day for the prominent Indian opposition figure, as pictures and clips from India showed. After all the setbacks of the past months, Gandhi had reason to rejoice on Friday 4 August. On that day, the Supreme Court handed down a decision paving the way for the 53-year-old's political comeback.

To recall: in March, things had gone particularly badly for the politician Gandhi when he had been sentenced to the maximum of two years in prison in a defamation case.

The judges were ruling at the time on a complaint accusing the opposition member of disparaging Narendra Modi's name in a 2019 election campaign speech. Gandhi lost his seat in parliament as a result and thus his role as one of the leading opposition politicians set to challenge Modi in the 2024 election.

The Supreme Court of India has now suspended this controversial sentence. The judges of the lower court had not sufficiently justified the maximum sentence for Gandhi, the Supreme Court explained. Now the verdict must be reviewed again. Until then, nothing legally stands in the way of Gandhi's return to the Lok Sabha.

Proteste von Anhängern Gandhis gegen seinen Ausschluss aus dem Parlament; Bikas Das/AP Photo/picture alliance
Proteste von Anhängern Rahul Gandhis gegen seinen Ausschluss aus dem Parlament: Im März war Gandhi in einem Beleidigungsverfahren zur Maximalstrafe von zwei Jahren Haft verurteilt worden war. Die Richter befanden damals über eine Klage, die dem Oppositionellen vorwarf, in einer Wahlkampfrede 2019 den Namen Modi verunglimpft zu haben. Gandhi verlor dadurch seinen Sitz im Parlament und somit auch seine Rolle als einer der führenden Oppositionspolitiker, die Modi bei der Wahl 2024 herausfordern werden. 

Leader of the Congress Party in the Lower House, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, announced that he would move a motion to immediately revoke Gandhi's exclusion from parliament. Assuming there was no further opposition, Gandhi could resume his seat as an MP on Monday 7 August.

The decision of the top judges holds great significance for India; permanent disqualification would have meant that Gandhi would also have been barred from next year's national elections.

The sentence imposed for defamation had triggered fierce debates across the country – about the freedom of political speech in a democracy, and also about accusations that the opposition was being unnecessarily bullied.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) dominates the political landscape anyway, would hardly have had any opponents worth mentioning in the elections had Gandhi been excluded.

It is far from certain, however, how much political clout the scion of the legendary Gandhi dynasty can actually develop to challenge the incumbent.

— Mallikarjun Kharge (@kharge) August 7, 2023



The opposition needs to stand united against the BJP

Most analysts agree that the Indian opposition will only stand a chance against the Modi party machine if it presents a united front against the prime minister's camp. Three weeks ago, more than two dozen parties came together to form an alliance for this purpose.

But how strong the alliance will be, and whether it will be sufficiently able to counter Modi's great popularity, remains an open question. Rising prices and growing unemployment at least make it easy for the opposition to attack the government on these fronts.

Congress party sympathisers erupted in jubilation when the Supreme Court announced its decision. Rahul Gandhi wrote on X (formerly Twitter), "Come what may, my mission remains the same: to protect the idea of India."

With this, he has cast himself ideologically as the guardian of the nation; the Congress party had already played a prominent role in Indian politics before independence, expanding it after the withdrawal of the British in 1947, and the politician is looking to build on this foundation.



Great-grandson of state founder Jawaharlal Nehru

Over the decades, the Nehru-Gandhi clan (which shares a name with Mahatma Gandhi, but is unrelated) emerged as India's defining political dynasty: Rahul is the great-grandson of state founder Jawaharlal Nehru, grandson of Indira Gandhi and son of Rajiv Gandhi.

The Congress party of the Gandhis always pursued a secular-oriented policy, in keeping with the spirit of the Indian constitution. And it is this soul of the Indian nation that the party alliance seeks to defend against Modi and his religiously inclined party.

When Rahul Gandhi talks now about the "idea of India", he is trying to revive the vision of a pluralistic polity as envisaged by the founding fathers – among them his great-grandfather Nehru. The Congress politician is consciously setting this against the concept of the state that he sees embodied by Prime Minister Modi and his Hindu nationalist movement.

Modi's party base relies heavily on a national-religious identity that places Hindus at the centre, with the result that religious minorities are feeling increasingly alienated. They complain that rather than protecting minorities, the government is pushing for Hindu dominance at the expense of everyone else.

Arne Perras 

© Suddeutsche Zeitung/ 2023