The Congress has dubbed Gandhi scion’s conviction in a defamation case and his subsequent disqualification as MP as the government’s attempt to muzzle his voice, writes Amit Agnihotri
The Congress described Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification from the Lok Sabha as an attempt to silence his voice by the Centre against whom the leader had been asking tough questions even as it threatened to launch nation-wide protests over the issue.
Rahul Gandhi was disqualified as a member of the Lok Sabha a day after he was given a two-year jail term by a Surat court on March 23 in a 2019 defamation case involving his remarks on PM Modi.
Rahul had mentioned the names of fugitives Nirav Modi and Lalit Modi along with that of PM Modi to wonder “how was it possible that all the thieves had a common surname Modi” in a speech made during the 2019 Lok Sabha poll campaign in Karnataka’s Kolar district.
The defamation case was then filed by former Surat MLA and ex-minister Purnesh Modi taking objection to Rahul Gandhi’s remarks. According to the BJP leader, Rahul had defamed the entire Modh or Modi community through his remarks.
The jail-term gave fodder to the ruling BJP, whose president JP Nadda attacked the former Congress chief saying he had insulted the backward classes. Rahul was granted a bail for 30 days and the Congress said it would appeal to get a stay on conviction in the Sessions Court, High Court and even Supreme Court, if needed.
The entire Congress came out in support of Rahul Gandhi, who invoked Mahatma Gandhi to say that his fight for truth would go on. The Congress said Rahul’s conviction was both a legal and a political issue and held protests in various parts of the country against the targeting of their leader as part of Centre’s vendetta politics.
The disqualification came amidst a confrontation between the ruling BJP and main opposition Congress which paralysed Parliament.
When the second half of the Budget Session of Parliament opened on March 13, both the treasury and the opposition benches adopted hard postures against each other over various issues.
The opposition accused the ruling party of deliberately disrupting the Parliament to avoid demand of a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe into the alleged links between PM Modi and businessman Gautam Adani.
The BJP and the Centre in turn accused Congress leader Rahul Gandhi of defaming Indian democracy abroad lluding to thr remarks he made during the UK visit and said the Lok Sabha member should first apologize.
The core of the BJP’s attack was that Rahul had said in London that democracy had been damaged in India over the past years and that the Western powers should intervene to save the situation.
The Centre’s attack provoked the Congress to allege that it was PM Modi who had earlier defamed the country abroad and should tender an apology first. To prove its charge, the Congress released a series of old video clips showing the PM saying that earlier Indians were ashamed to be born in the country.
The Congress also claimed that Rahul had said nothing wrong during his recent visit to the United Kingdom and that the Centre was deliberately twisting his remarks to target the former party president, who was asking tough questions from the government.
Concerned over the impasse, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his senior ministers conferred with Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla. Later, the Finance Bill that gives effect to tax proposals for fiscal year starting April 1 was passed without a discussion amidst ruckus by opposition members demanding a JPC probe into the allegations against the Adani group of companies.
In fact, the Congress-BJP rivalry had started during the first half of the Budget Session when the Congress-led opposition disrupted the two houses for days over the Adani-Hindenburg issue.
The government argued that the Supreme Court had already appointed an expert committee which was looking into the issue and therefore a JPC probe was not needed in the matter.
The opposition argued that the SC panel was only probing the Hindenburg report which had questioned the functioning of the Adani group and the resultant meltdown at the stock exchange had led to wealth worth billions of rupees, belonging to small investors, getting wiped.
The opposition argued that the private businessman had benefited from his friendship with the PM and the link could only be investigated by a JPC.
Speaking during a debate to thank President Droupadi Murmu for her address to the joint sitting of the two houses of Parliament on January 31, Rahul Gandhi alleged a link between the PM and Gautam Adani and said the businessman’s wealth had grown phenomenally since 2014, when Modi came to power at the Centre.
The remarks were expunged from the record by the Speaker. When Congress chief and Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Mallikarjun Kharge tried to raise the matter in the upper house, his remarks too were expunged from the record by chairman Jagdeep Dhankhar. The Congress said the two Chairs had acted at the behest of the government, which wanted to silence the opposition.
As the Opposition unity rattled the government, the BJP decided to target Rahul. BJP Lok Sabha MP Nishikant Dubey wrote to Speaker Om Birla demanding action against Rahul Gandhi for “breach of privilege” saying the Congress leader had levelled “unverified, incriminatory and defamatory” statements against the PM.
“These statements are misleading, derogatory, indecent, unparliamentary and incriminatory in nature to the dignity of the House and the Prime Minister, being a Member of Lok Sabha. Rahul Gandhi, despite making a statement in the House that he will provide documentary evidence, has not submitted any duly authenticated document supporting his statements,” said Dubey.
The BJP MP said that Rahul’s remarks were a “violation of privileges of the House” and a “contempt of the House” and urged the Speaker to take immediate action against the Congress MP.
Parliamentary Affairs Minister Prahlad Joshi backed Dubey’s demand and urged the Chair that action be taken against Rahul Gandhi for certain “objectionable” comments made in the Lok Sabha and that the remarks be expunged from the record.
“One should serve a notice beforehand if he or she wants to make allegations against anyone. The Congress leader made some remarks. Those were very objectionable and baseless allegations. Those should be expunged and action should be taken against him,” Joshi said.
The Congress countered the move with a similar breach of privilege notice against the PM over his remarks related to country’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru that were made in the Lok Sabha. The move, seen as a bid to counter the BJP offensive against Rahul, was initiated by AICC general secretary in charge of organisation KC Venugopal.
Venugopal, a Rajya Sabha member, submitted a notice of breach of privilege by the PM under Rule 188 of the Procedure and Conduct of Business of the upper House. The Congress’s counter was based on the PM’s comments made during his reply to the Motion of Thanks on the President’s address in February and was related to the “family” not using the “Nehru” surname.
Venugopal said the PM’s remarks, which were also condemned by the Congress, “were not only disgraceful but also insulting and defamatory vis-a-vis the members of the Nehru family, particularly Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, who are members of the Lok Sabha.”
“I seek privilege proceedings against Prime Minister Narendra Modi for having made derogatory, insulting, distasteful and defamatory remarks against Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi which has amounted to breach of their privileges and also contempt of the House,” said Venugopal.
In his speech on February 9, Modi had said, “I find it very surprising that we may at times miss out mentioning the name of (Jawaharlal) Nehru ji, and we will also correct ourselves because he was the country’s first prime minister. But I do not understand why none of them use the Nehru surname? What is the shame in using the Nehru surname? Such a great personality is not acceptable to you, to the family?”
Venugopal reiterated the Congress’s position that in India “the surname of the father is not taken by the daughter.” “Despite this, he (PM) deliberately mocked. The tone and tenor of the remark is insinuating and derogatory in nature.”
Days after the PM’s Lok Sabha speech, Rahul accused the premier of “directly insulting” him by referring to his surname while speaking at a rally in his parliamentary constituency Wayanad, in Kerala.
The Congress leader also questioned the decision not to expunge the PM’s remarks from the record of the Lok Sabha, contrasting it with the Speaker’s move to remove from the records certain comments he had made on the Adani Group and PM Modi.
“I asked the Prime Minister some questions. I asked him about his relationship with Adani. I asked how Adani has grown so fast. The Prime Minister did not answer a single question. His response to my questions was that why are you not called Nehru, why are you called Gandhi. Because generally in India … maybe Mr Modi doesn’t understand this… But generally, in India, our surname is the surname of our father.”
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh also targeted Rahul Gandhi saying the Congress leader should apologise over his remarks made in London. Congress MP Manickam Tagore then moved a breach of privilege motion against Rajnath Singh also saying the defence minister had violated rules of the House by mentioning Rahul’s name without proper notice.
Amid the deadlock, Congress chief Mallikarjun Kharge led a group of 17 like-minded parties to demand a JPC probe into the Adani issue and said that Rahul will not apologise as he did not say anything wrong on the foreign soil. Kharge accused some ministers of deliberately twisting Rahul’s remarks.
The JPC and apology issues rocked both the houses of Parliament resulting in a deadlock. The Congress leaders in the Rajya Sabha said that minister Piyush Goyal was not supposed to have mentioned Rahul’s London remarks as he was a member of the Lok Sabha and comments made by any lower house member could not be raised in the upper house as per the rules.
Rahul Gandhi visited his alma mater, the Cambridge University, in the first week of March as a fellow to have interactions with the students and faculty and later also had interactions with the UK parliamentarians and members of the Indian Journalists Association.
During his various interactions, Rahul slammed the BJP and described its ideological mentor RSS as a fascist organization while alleging that they had captured most of India’s institutions and were choking the voice of the opposition.
“RSS is…you can call it a secret society. It is built along the lines of the Muslim Brotherhood and the idea is to use the democratic contest to come to power and then subvert the democratic contest afterwards. And it shocked me as to how successful they have been at capturing the different institutions of our country… the press, the judiciary, Parliament, Election Commission — all the institutions are under pressure, under threat and controlled in one way or the other,” he said during an interaction at Chatham House.
The former Congress chief also questioned the government’s China policy and charged PM Modi of having falsely denied the Chinese incursion along the border in eastern Ladakh. The BJP in turn used parts of Rahul’s interactions to allege that he had sought intervention from America and Europe to save democracy in India.
The Congress rejected the charge saying the BJP was twisting Rahul’s speeches in which he had said that Indian democracy was a public good and important for the world. The Congress said that Rahul had actually spoken about the strength of Indian democracy and how the world would be impacted if Indian democracy crumbled.
“He never asked the western powers to intervene in domestic issues. He clearly said that solutions to India’s problems would emerge from within,” Congress spokesperson Supriya Shrinate said.
The Congress spokesperson further said that while Rahul had been invited to deliver a talk by his alma mater, the Cambridge University, the honour had made the BJP leaders feel jealous.
Shrinate also targeted Union Law Minister Kiren Rijiju, who had criticised Rahul’s utterances in London and had described him as a “Pappu”. The Congress spokesperson countered the law minister for the kind of language a cabinet member was using against a political rival saying it was a new low in India.
The Congress spokesperson said, “I wonder while they keep saying that Rahul should not be taken seriously. Yet, whenever he speaks, the entire cabinet and BJP leaders come out to attack the former party chief and defend the Government.”
“If the government is confident why does not it debate the issues flagged by Rahul Gandhi in Parliament,” said Shrinate.
The Rahul vs BJP tussle did not end here and flared up again as Vice President Jagdeep Dhankar, who is also the chairman of the Rajya Sabha, criticised the Lok Sabha MP for telling UK lawmakers that microphones of the opposition leaders were turned off in Indian Parliament.
“The Chairman is an umpire, a referee, a friend, philosopher and guide to all. He cannot be a cheerleader for any ruling dispensation. History measures leaders not on the zealousness with which they defended their party, but the dignity with which they performed their roles in the service of the people,” Congress veteran Jairam Ramesh said as he slammed the Chair’s observations during a book launch event.
Ramesh alleged that “the Hon’ble Vice President’s statement on Rahul Gandhi, therefore, was surprising to say the least. He rushed to the defence of a government from which he is constitutionally required to be at arm’s-length and in a manner that was both confusing as well as disappointing. Rahul Gandhi has not said anything abroad that he has not said several times here. And unlike certain other individuals his stand does not vary depending on where he sits.”
Rahul’s plea denied
Amid a Parliament stand-off over his recent remarks related to Indian democracy in London, former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi expressed doubts that he would be allowed to speak in the Lok Sabha.
“I went to Parliament this morning with the idea of putting what I have said, what I feel on the floor of the house. Four ministers have raised allegations against me in Parliament House. It is my right to be allowed to speak on the floor of the house. I requested the Speaker today. I went to his chamber and I requested him. I said- look, I would very much like to speak. I told him that people from the BJP have made allegations against me and as a Member of Parliament, it is my right to speak. He was non-committal. In his way, he smiled. I am hopeful that I will be allowed to speak on Friday. But I don’t think they will let me speak,” Rahul told reporters.
“This story started the day I gave my speech in Parliament about Mr Adani. I asked some fundamental questions to the Prime Minister about his relationship with the businessman, about how Mr Adani has been given pretty much the entire India-Israel defence relationship. How he is being given the Bombay Airport, other airports, how rules have been changed to allow him to be given these things. What happened in Australia between the Prime Minister, Mr. Adani and the Chairman of the State Bank and one of the Chief Ministers of one of the states in Australia. It is a picture that is visible to everybody; why is the Prime Minister of India sitting with the State Bank Chairman, Mr. Adani, and an Australian leader? What is he discussing and why after that discussion, almost a billion dollars were pledged by the State Bank to Mr. Adani? What was said in Sri Lanka? Why a person made a statement saying- Mr. Rajapaksa told him that Mr. Adani was given the contract and it was basically Mr. Modi who told him the same in Bangladesh,” Rahul Gandhi said.
According to Rahul, the PM feared the Adani issue and was therefore trying to distract attention from the controversy.
“That is why, this whole exercise of four or five ministers, the Prime Minister is giving a speech to distract from this fundamental question which is, what is the relationship between the Prime Minister of India and Mr. Adani and his companies and more importantly, whose money is in the shell companies? Who is this unknown person, whose money is in the shell companies? What is his relationship with Mr. Adani? These are the questions,” he said.
The Congress leader said he deserved a chance to speak in Parliament and the ongoing stand-off in Parliament was testing the Indian democracy.
“If Indian democracy is functioning, I would be able to say my piece in Parliament. So, actually what you are seeing is a test of Indian democracy. After four leaders of the BJP have made an allegation about a Member of Parliament, is that Member of Parliament going to be given the same space that those four Ministers have been given or is he going to be told to shut-up? That’s what the real question in front of this country is right now,” Rahul said.
“I am a Member of Parliament and I am hopeful that I will be allowed to speak in Parliament. It is my right to have the opportunity. It is my democratic right,” he said.
Kharge alleged that it was unusual in the history of India’s parliamentary democracy that the ruling BJP was disrupting the two houses of Parliament and not allowing listed business to be conducted while the opposition was keen to run the two houses.
As confrontation peaked between the government and the opposition, the Lok Sabha was muted for around 20 minutes provoking the Congress to point out that Rahul’s allegations over lack of democracy in India had turned out to be true. The government explained the muting of Lok Sabha as a technical glitch.
As the Parliament deadlock threatened the passage of the Union Budget 2023-24, the Congress said that it will not give up the demand for a JPC probe into the Adani issue.
“Over the past few days an effort has been made to find a compromise formula. To work out a middle path so that the opposition gives up the demand for JPC probe into the Adani issue and then BJP will take back its demand for Rahul Gandhi’s apology. This is not possible. There is no link between the two issues. The demand for a JPC probe into the Adani issue is an original issue and is based on events which have taken place. The allegation against Rahul Gandhi is baseless. We are not ready for a give and take. Rahul Gandhi has written to the Speaker under Rule 357 so that he be given a chance to speak in the Lok Sabha and present his views over the allegations made by some ministers in the House. The demand for Rahul Gandhi’s apology is being repeated so that attention is diverted from the Adani issue,” Congress communications in charge Jairam Ramesh said.
“This is part of the PM’s 3D strategy. Distort, defame and divert. They have distorted Rahul Gandhi’s speeches, have defamed him and are now trying to divert attention from the Adani issue. Withdrawal of demand for JPC probe in Adani issue is non-negotiable for us,” he said.
Besides Rahul’s comments in London, the opposition parties also attacked the government saying while their leaders were being targeted by the various central agencies, there was no action against the Adani group companies which have been accused of duping a large number of small investors belonging to the LIC of India and various public sector banks.
In a bid to assert pressure on the government, a united opposition tried to march to the ED office nearby but was stopped by the police just outside the Parliament House complex. The next day, the opposition members formed a human chain inside the Parliament House complex to highlight the Adani issue. Later, Rahul and Sonia Gandhi joined the opposition members who staged a sit in protest in front of the statue of Mahatma Gandhi inside the Parliament House complex.
Later, the opposition parties approached the Supreme Court over the issue and also petitioned President Droupadi Murmu.
Delhi cops come calling
A furious Congress condemned Delhi Police reaching Rahul Gandhi’s residence and said the act smacked of “politics of intimidation” by the Centre.
“The Delhi Police top officials reaching Rahul Gandhi’s residence smacks of intimidation by the Modi government. Someone at the top must have asked them to take such action. We condemn such action,” Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi said.
According to Singhvi, the Delhi Police had earlier sent a two-page questionnaire to Rahul Gandhi on March 16 asking him to furnish details of the women victims of molestation and domestic violence, who had met him during the Bharat Jodo yatra.
“Rahul Gandhi had sought around 10 days-time to submit his response. But senior police officials again reached his residence today. What is the hurry?” he said.
The Congress leader further said that the Delhi police had no such jurisdiction to question the Wayanad MP as the questions pertained to his speech made in Jammu and Kashmir on Jan 30.
“The Delhi police has no jurisdiction over the matter. Then what were they doing for the past 45 days. The yatra covered around 4000 km and passed through 12 states. During the yatra, he met lakhs of people. The police are asking the details of the women who met Rahul and shared their grievances with him. Normally, a leader just patiently listens to such grievances and asks the fellow yatris to take care of it,” said Singhvi, a senior Supreme Court advocate.
“We have sought time and we will submit a detailed response in time,” he said.
Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot said the action of Delhi police showed that “democracy was in danger in the country” while party veteran Jairam Ramesh said “the police action had come due to the opposition unity over the Adani issue in Parliament.”
“What Rahul said in London about democracy is what he had been saying earlier. Whatever is happening shows there is no democracy in the country. What if a union minister travels across Rajasthan tomorrow, meets people and makes similar observations about women getting molested. Should the state police send notices to him? They are setting very wrong precedents which will go against them,” said Gehlot.
“The Centre misuses central agencies to threaten the opposition. We will not let them go. We will keep raising the Adani issue,” he said.
“The government is rattled by the opposition unity in Parliament over the Adani issue. We will keep raising the issue. The government has no answer to the unemployment issue,” said Ramesh.
According to Gehlot, such police action based on a zero FIR had never happened in the country over the past 75 years.
“If there is a zero FIR, who registered it? IT is clear that the police are getting instructions from the top,” he said.
Making a comparison of the situation with the Janata Party government after the Emergency, Gehlot said that then Congress leader and former prime minister Indira Gandhi was also targeted in a similar way.
“Everyone knows what happened in 1980. She came back to power,” he said.
Mamata, Kejriwal lend support
Meanwhile, Rahul Gandhi has received support from West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal.
“In PM Modi’s New India, Opposition leaders have become the prime target of BJP! While BJP leaders with criminal antecedents are inducted into the cabinet, Opposition leaders are disqualified for their speeches. We have witnessed a new low for our constitutional democracy,” Banerjee tweeted.
“The country has to be saved from an arrogant dictator and illiterate person… Dismissing Rahul Gandhi ji from the membership of the Lok Sabha is a cowardly act. We respect the judiciary, but we do not agree with this judgment. Everyone is scared in the country… Now, people will have to stand up and my appeal to the people – this country belongs to all,” said Kejriwal.