Shikha Mukerjee | Testing time lies ahead for the ‘mother of democracy’

The Asian Age.  | Aakar Patel

Opinion, Columnists

Disqualifying Rahul Gandhi within 26 hours of the Surat court’s verdict was an act as much in indecent haste as it was not in good faith.

Congress MP Rahul Gandhi arrives at Parliament House complex during Monsoon Session, in New Delhi, Monday, Aug. 7, 2023. The Lok Sabha membership of Rahul Gandhi was restored on Monday, days after the Supreme Court stayed his conviction in a defamation case. (PTI Photo/Vijay Verma)

Democracies are fragile”, wrote Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, academics and best-selling authors, in their 2018 book How Democracies Die. India is no exception. Of the three pillars that contain and uphold democracy, the judiciary — from the district court in Surat to the Supreme Court in New Delhi — has worked on how the balance is maintained.

One more test of its fragility or strength will play out from August 8 in the Lok Sabha, when the no-confidence motion tabled by the Opposition now in a newly-formed alliance, INDIA, is inevitably defeated. The test, therefore, is neither in fact that the motion was tabled, nor in its predictable defeat. The test will be on the quality of the debate in the Lok Sabha, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi will face Rahul Gandhi, now that his disqualification has been rescinded by the Speaker, Om Birla. The disqualification of the Wayanad MP was based on the Surat court’s conviction and two-year sentence that automatically triggered his exclusion under the Representation of the People Act 1951.

Disqualifying Rahul Gandhi within 26 hours of the Surat court’s verdict was an act as much in indecent haste as it was not in good faith. The Surat court had concluded that the maximum sentence should be imposed on Rahul Gandhi for a statement that was as tasteless as it was a meaningless, sweeping generalisation. As it happens, the two-year jail term handed down to Rahul Gandhi as an MP triggered a harsher punishment; under Election Commission rules the Wayanad MP was disqualified for eight years as a contestant in any election.

Acting in good faith, lifting the disqualification before the no-confidence motion debate was politically necessary for the ruling BJP. A head-to-head debate between Mr Modi and Rahul Gandhi will be the high point of the debate. Mr Modi has managed to duck being present in the Lok Sabha for most of the Monsoon Session, even as the INDIA alliance demanded that he speak on the now three-month horrific carnage raging in Manipur. The Speaker, having wrestled with the Opposition over the duration of a debate on Manipur, where the BJP is also in power, the formality of a no-confidence motion is a critical moment for Prime Minister Modi.

Having declared that India is the “mother of democracy”, it is up to Mr Modi to demonstrate that it is indeed so. Democracies are not only about winning majorities that put the BJP in power in the “double-engine” model that Mr Modi values so much. Democracies are also about debate and accountability.
The Supreme Court verdict and the rescinded disqualification allows Rahul Gandhi to be a candidate in the 2024 general election. The sooner Rahul Gandhi returns to the Lok Sabha the better.

The Speaker and his office have set a seriously bad precedent for future office-holders intent on acting in bad faith. Mr Birla is singularly partial to a large number of alleged wrong-doers even as he has been extraordinarily tough on Rahul Gandhi. Under Mr Birla’s watch, there are some 116 MPs from the BJP, 29 MPs from the Congress, 13 MPs from the Janata Dal (United), 10 from the DMK and nine from the Trinamul Congress who have criminal cases against them. It can be safely assumed that many on this list, put together by Association of Democratic Rights in 2019, long before Rahul Gandhi was found guilty, continue to serve as MPs because there are stay orders issued by a judicial authority pending final disposal of the case.

The neutrality of the Speaker is a difficult matter; it has been tested in India’s Parliament. It cost Somnath Chatterjee his membership of the CPI(M) when he refused to resign from his post as his party wanted him to do, in line with its withdrawal of support for the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance government over the civil nuclear deal with the United States in 2008. Mr Chatterjee was adamant that as Speaker, he belonged to no party. Mr Birla is being tested against Mr Chatterjee’s standard.

The larger question that the Supreme Court in its judgment has raised is about the rights of the people. For the Supreme Court, Wayanad’s non- representation because of the automatic disqualification triggered by the Surat Court decision was a “relevant factor”. Rightly so; the automatic disqualification penalised people living within the Wayanad constituency and not only the MP, an individual.

The Supreme Court has raised another question: can the judiciary fail to justify its decision? Clearly, the apex court felt that it was irrational of the Surat court to hold the position that Rahul Gandhi was a habitual offender, because “except the admonition to the petitioner by this court (Supreme Court) in a contempt proceeding, no other reason has been granted by the learned trial judge”. In doing so, the Supreme Court has drawn attention to the duration of the punishment and an alternative scenario had the Surat court handed down a punishment for 729 days instead of 730 days.

The over-the-top labelling of Rahul Gandhi confirms that in India’s democracy today, the ruling side considers the Opposition, especially the Congress Party, as an enemy, an object to be despised and hated rather than a rival and a competitor. There is serious danger to the institutional structure as well as the expectation that those who work within these institutions will act, at all times, in good faith. The issue is not limited to the efficacy of the mechanism of balance and the checks that hold it in place; it goes deeper than that.
The 13 cases of criminal defamation filed against Rahul Gandhi are about the BJP’s perception on the distance that separates Narendra Modi from the rest of his class, that is, MPs of the Lok Sabha. Its obsession with power and the prestige that cocoons the powerful have been on display for a while.

To them, Mr Modi is not first among equals, which is how parliamentary democracy defines the office and the office-holder. To the BJP, Mr Modi is the person who keeps it in power. He is not just another political leader, with a fixed term in office. He is so up and above the rest, so far removed from the ranks of mere MPs, like Rahul Gandhi, that he has acquired cult status. Democracies are cruel in that everyone is equal and no one is special. Any exercise, direct or indirect, that attempts to make an individual special increases the danger to the fragility of democracy.