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Gandhi embraces role as India opposition leader

Murali Krishnan in New Delhi
July 11, 2024

Rahul Gandhi has been credited with the Congress Party's impressive result in India's recent general elections. Now, he is continuing to rail against the ruling BJP as leader of the parliamentary opposition.

Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi
Rahul Gandhi is the most recognizable face of India's newly resurgent oppositionImage: Altaf Qadri/AP/picture alliance

Just three days after a crowd crush disaster at a religious event in northern Uttar Pradesh state killed more than 120 people, Rahul Gandhi, the newly appointed leader of the opposition in the lower house of India's Parliament, visited the site to meet with family members of those killed.

"It is a matter of grief that so many families have suffered, so many have lost their lives," Gandhi told reporters after meeting with the families. "I don't want to speak through a political prism, but there have been some lapses on the part of the administration. There have been mistakes, which should be identified."

Soon after, Gandhi visited relief camps in Manipur, a state in northeastern India that has been torn by ethnic conflict.

"I want to tell Manipur, I come here as your brother. I want to work with you to bring back peace in Manipur," he said.

At each stop, Gandhi railed against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). For Gandhi, who has often been portrayed as an unserious politician, the gains by his Congress Party and the opposition in the recently concluded national elections have given him a wider, more prominent platform to take on the BJP. 

India: Modi wins third term despite heavy losses

New role, same rhetoric

Despite having won a third consecutive term, Prime Minister Modi's BJP failed to win an outright majority and now relies on coalition partners to remain in power.

In his first address to parliament earlier this month, his first since being appointed leader of the opposition, Gandhi picked up where he left off on the campaign trail, attacking Modi's government on various fronts.

"All religions talk about courage. All our great men have spoken about non-violence and fear. But those who call themselves Hindu only talk about violence, hatred, untruth," said Gandhi, referring to the BJP. 

He finished the statement by asking in Hindi, "Are you Hindu or not?"

This remark led to loud protests from the BJP members and their allies. The comment was considered so inflammatory that it was later expunged from the parliamentary record. For many, though, the comments signaled a change in the power dynamics of the newly constituted legislature. 

"Gandhi surprised Modi and his political opponents by his sharp speech in parliament. He has emerged as a powerful voice on issues that have put the government on the defensive," political analyst Rasheed Kidwai told DW. "Gandhi wants to prove his detractors wrong that he lacks application and avoids a position of responsibility."

Rahul Gandhi at the start of his 66-day "Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra" tour in Manipur
Rahul Gandhi embarked on a two-month-long cross-country campaign march prior to the 2024 Indian general electionImage: Bullu Raj/AP/picture alliance

Gandhi's more prominent role

As the Congress Party's most prominent face, Gandhi's popularity has soared since the election. His image was bolstered in the run-up to the election as Gandhi embarked on a 6,700-kilometer-long (4,160 miles) trek across India. Some observers believe that these actions have transformed his image into that of a "poor man's leader."

"His constant mention of social justice, and saving the Constitution not only pulled in more listeners but has solidified his support base. For the first time, there was great coherence in Gandhi's pitch," Alishan Jafri, a commentator told DW, adding that Gandhi needs to continue to debate Modi on real issues that matter to all Indians.

"Modi has altered the thought process of many Indians. They see rights with contempt and government as the ultimate authority before which all subjects must kneel. For Gandhi, the real challenge is to remind the people that all Indians have the right to have rights," added Jafri. 

Will India's new coalition government rein in Narendra Modi?

Political columnist Radhika Ramaseshan told DW that Gandhi's new position is markedly different from his previous stint as the Congress president. 

"The difference this time is that he has accepted a constitutional post. The Congress Party's vastly improved performance in the election has given him the confidence he lacked," said Ramaseshan.

She pointed out that these were still early days and the Gandhi would be tested in and out of parliament. "Consistency is all-important to motivate the Congress workers and galvanize their morale. It is a long haul and the onus to take the party to a position where it can respectably challenge the BJP lies squarely on Gandhi."

Edited by Ole Tangen Jr

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Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11