India: What's next for opposition leader Rahul Gandhi?
Rahul Gandhi, a former head of the Indian National Congress, was quickly ousted from the country's parliament after a court convicted him of defamation last week.
The conviction was related to a speech Gandhi made in 2019, where he mocked the surname of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, referring to thieves as having the surname Modi.
His removal from Parliament came as a body blow to his party ahead of the general election set for next year.
Ouster 'bodes ill' for India's democracy
The 52-year-old opposition leader faced the defamation case over remarks he made at a rally in southern Karnataka state ahead of the 2019 parliamentary election. Gandhi targeted Modi for alleged corruption and took a swipe at his last name, which he shares with fugitive billionaire businessmen Nirav Modi and Lalit Modi.
"Why do all thieves share the Modi surname?" Gandhi asked in the speech.
Many political leaders were surprised by the haste with which authorities moved to disqualify Gandhi, despite the court giving him 30 days to appeal the verdict.
"Judgment on 23 March, disqualification on 24 March. The speed with which the system moved is astonishing," said senior Congress leader Palaniappan Chidambaram.
"In PM Modi's new India, opposition leaders have become the prime targets of the BJP. Today, we have witnessed a new low for our constitutional democracy," said Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal chief minister, following the expulsion.
Congress MP Shashi Tharoor also sees it as a bad sign.
"This is politics with the gloves off and it bodes ill for our democracy," he said.
Meanwhile, Gandhi was lambasted by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) over the statements made during his recent speaking tour in the UK, where he bemoaned the crumbling structures of Indian democracy. The BJP insisted that Gandhi should apologize for his remarks on "foreign soil."
Indian National Congress launches campaign to support Gandhi
Gandhi refused to apologize. He has also attacked the government over Modi's alleged ties to business tycoon Gautam Adani, who in January was accused by an American research and investment firm of committing fraud and stock-price manipulation.
The Congress party is now launching a nationwide campaign to coordinate with like-minded opposition parties against the government. Protests, street-corner meetings between party representatives and the public, and marches are being held in different parts of the country.
Several political parties, including the Trinamool Congress, Aam Aadmi Party, Bharat Rashtra Samithi, Samajwadi Party and others have already extended strong support for the embattled leader.
While Narendra Modi is still considered India's most popular politician, Gandhi boasts impressive political ties — he is the great-grandson of India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the grandson of the nation's first female Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and son of another former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
"This family has raised the voice of the people of India and fought for truth for generations," said Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi, Rahul's sister, while hitting out at Narendra Modi in a public rally. "The blood that runs in our veins has one unique feature. We have never bowed down before a coward, power-hungry dictator like you and will never bow down. Do what you want."
Opposition to close ranks against BJP?
Gandhi's removal also comes at a time after 14 political parties filed a petition in the Supreme Court alleging that Modi's government was engaged in politically motivated financial-crime investigations of opposition leaders.
"This opportunity could serve to energize the Congress party rank-and-file and perhaps, provide unity of purpose among opposition parties. But it will have to calibrate its moves well to take on a formidable BJP," political commentator Rasheed Kidwai told DW.
As author of several books on Gandhi's Congress party, including "Sonia, a biography" which focuses on Rahul's mother and former party leader Sonia Gandhi, Kidwai pointed out that a politically-driven civil stir could be very useful for government opponents.
"Rahul Gandhi is said to have interacted with over 150 civil society organizations while crisscrossing the country. Now, it is time to integrate them into a political campaign. Extraordinary situations call for drastic actions," added Kidwai.
BJP strikes back at Gandhi's camp
The court has also sentenced Gandhi to two years in prison over his remarks. Under Indian law, the sentence bars him from contesting elections for eight years or until a higher court stays or overturns his conviction and sentence. This would likely keep the politician from running in national elections scheduled in 2024.
But Gandhi's legal team hopes to nullify the ban by either overturning the decision or reducing his sentence to under two years.
"We are confident that we will get a stay of conviction. A stay of conviction will remove the very basis of this disqualification. It takes time to draft and to file. They are taking advantage of that time… hot-footing it by these disqualification notices… but we have full faith in the law," said Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi, also a senior lawyer.
The BJP, for its part, denied that the process against Gandhi was politically motivated. It pointed out that he was convicted by a court in Surat after the due legal process and his disqualification as an MP was an automatic legal consequence.
"What is the purpose of your satyagraha (passive resistance)? You don't have faith in the law," BJP president J.P. Nadda said, addressing Gandhi. "You hurl caste abuse. The court says to tender an apology but you have an ego, you don't (apologize). Your membership (of Parliament) is gone but your ego remains."
Edited by: Darko Janjevic