Edited by Alexandra Huggins
On Friday, March 24, India’s Parliament disqualified and expelled Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the country’s largest opposition party, the Indian National Congress (INC), from its ranks. Gandhi is one of the leading critics of incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and his critical remarks are nothing new. Officially, Parliament expelled Gandhi for his defamation conviction in a court in Gujarat, Modi’s home state. Gandhi’s conviction is for his remarks in a 2019 speech, where he asked, “Why do all thieves have Modi as their surname?” Members and allies of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) argued remarks were grounds for defamation because they constituted a class-action violation (in this case, insulting people with a particular surname). In addition to Gujarat, a court in the state of Bihar has requested his appearance for proceedings over the same remarks. Gandhi has not served jail time thus far as he appeals his conviction. Under Indian law, a legislator is automatically disqualified if handed a two-year sentence for any crime. However, senior INC leaders assumed that Gandhi would have time to appeal his conviction in a higher Indian court. Instead, as they met to discuss his conviction, they were informed Parliament had simply expelled Gandhi from its ranks.
Gandhi’s arrest sparked ire and condemnation. Members of the BJP and the ruling government claim that there is nothing political about this move and that it is simply a matter of law and parliamentary procedure. However, Gandhi and his allies have vociferously argued the actions taken against him were excessive and politically motivated. Thus, the INC has held countrywide protests against Gandhi’s disqualification and expulsion, trying to unite and formidably challenge Modi and the BJP. Still, whether or not Gandhi and the opposition’s attempt is successful, the current Indian government has dealt yet another blow to the world’s largest democracy. While Modi and the BJP have aimed to undermine their opposition and consolidate their power, the recent attacks and actions taken against opposition leaders in recent months seem bold, even by the ruling government’s standards. In February, India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) arrested Manish Sisodia, Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi and a high-profile member of opposition party Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), on liquor corruption charges that critics claim are politically motivated. Senior INC leader Pawan Khera was also arrested for mocking Modi in February and now faces 3 cases while on interim bail.
Aside from opposition leaders, significant changes in the Indian media landscape over the last few months have also raised concern. Most recently, the central government announced the creation of a “fact-checking unit” for media content. Media organizations fear this unit gives the ruling party license to take down content critical of government policy by arbitrarily labeling it as “fake.” In August 2022, Ravish Kumar stepped down as the senior executive editor of NDTV, one of India’s oldest and largest news organizations that routinely ran pieces critical of the government’s policies. Kumar resigned after Gautam Adani, a business magnate with close ties to Modi, acquired the channel in a hostile takeover. Indeed, Kumar cited a perceived loss of independence to critique the government and do his job reasonably.
The arrest of opposition leaders and the changes in the media landscape come amidst the broader context of the BJP’s efforts to consolidate power and undermine the opposition. After all, alarm at the state of Indian democracy under Modi’s administration is not new. There has been persistent criticism against the administration since Modi’s ascendancy to the country’s top job in 2014 over his response to major riots in 2002 as Chief Minister of Gujarat. This criticism has continued through controversies over a citizenship bill and the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status. Amidst these controversial policies, Indian democracy arguably faces its biggest test yet.
What has changed in recent months? Such actions are perplexing when considering that the BJP won its elections in 2014 and 2019 in massive landslides and appears set to win in another landslide in next year’s elections as well. Despite recent corruption scandals and struggles with inflation and employment, Modi is still the most popular leader in his country among world leaders. As journalist and longtime observer Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay notes, Gandhi’s arrest carries more political and optical benefit for the INC and the opposition than the ruling party. One could argue that this is business as usual in Modi’s India. Perhaps Gandhi’s expulsion, the arrest of opposition leaders, and the challenges to journalism and freedom are part and parcel of the ruling party’s quest to remake India fundamentally. Or perhaps, by attacking India’s political institutions and media, Modi and his associates have taken their vision to the next level.
The recent arrests of opposition leaders like Gandhi and changes in the media landscape in India have caused concern regarding the future of Indian democracy. Will Indian democracy bend or break under this escalated pressure? Only time will tell.