Bjp can gain nothing politically from legally correct disqualification of Rahul Gandhi as MP
Politically speaking, the disqualification is likely to invite global bad press for the Narendra Modi government as it comes just ahead of the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.
The disqualification of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi as a member of the Lok Sabha after his conviction by a Gujarat court should be seen more as a powerful political event than a matter of law. This is legally correct but may not help the BJP politically and in the perception battle.
Politically speaking, the disqualification is likely to invite global bad press for the Narendra Modi government as it comes just ahead of the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. Because unless a higher court overturns Gandhi’s conviction, he will not be able to stand for election for eight years. This will appear, regardless of the law, as “unfair” to world watchers.
Another political consequence could be that a seemingly impossible unity of opposition could, to some extent, be made possible by it. It’s not just because an opposition party leader appears to have been targeted, straight after an action against AAP leader Manish Sisodia and K Kavitha, the BRS leader’s daughter and Chief Minister of Telangana, K Chandrashekhar Rao. It is also because the absence of Rahul Gandhi from the electoral arena in case his disqualification is not overturned could make regional party leaders believe that they could become prime minister in an opposition coalition.
Congress will likely be more open to welcoming regional parties if it feels its “first family” is under direct attack now. And that may mean suspending one’s own projection as a necessary condition for doing business with other parties. This, in turn, may stoke the prime minister’s ambitions among regional leaders who may hope that any unexpected reversal in the BJP’s fortunes will open a possible window of opportunity for them.
Until now, opposition unity has seemed impossible, as regional opposition heavyweights have dreamed up the idea of replacing Congress. The main reason for this is the decimation of Congress in states witnessing direct Lok Sabha contests against the BJP in 2014 and 2019, when Rahul Gandhi was its de facto face. Regional opposition parties, be it the Trinamool Congress or the Biju Janata Dal, fared much better against the BJP in their strongholds.
The Congress, however, continued to focus on boosting Rahul Gandhi’s appeal, opting to focus solely on the Bharat Jodo Yatra, even when the party faced crucial assembly polls like Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh.
So, Rahul Gandhi being legally disqualified from being the electoral face of the party can indeed change this dynamic of an apathetic Congress focusing only on a leader and regional parties imagining their chances of replacing him. It may now make more sense for some opposition leaders to try to forge a broader opposition alliance with leaders from all parties, including Congress, feeling a slim chance of being elevated to the highest post. high in the unlikely event of a dramatic reversal in the BJP’s fortunes.
Recently, Mamata Banerjee took on Rahul Gandhi, calling him the biggest TRP in the BJP. If Gandhi ceases to be the electoral face of Congress, increased opposition unity is not ruled out, unless Congress decides to project Priyanka Gandhi and thereby disappoint regional opposition parties. That, too, is a distinct possibility, as Congress has amply proven that it values its first family more than election strategy.
Be that as it may, the conviction also stripped the BJP of the line – strongly taken after Rahul Gandhi’s UK tour – that Gandhi is “hand in hand” with influential global players to damage the global reputation of the country. Gandhi’s conviction suddenly changed the whole debate, which does not benefit the BJP.
These possible political consequences will play out independently of the legal aspects of the entire controversy, as the latter aspects fall within the realm of law rather than popular political discourse.
Legally speaking, the decision of the Lok Sabha Secretariat is correct. According to Section 102(1)(e) of the Constitution, a Member of Parliament is disqualified “if so disqualified by or under any Act passed by Parliament”. This is one of the grounds for forfeiture provided for in Article 102.
The relevant Indian law to which section 102 applies in this case is the Representation of the People Act 1951, which deals with the conduct of elections and the qualifications and disqualifications for being legislators at central and state levels. Section 8(3) of the Act states: “A person convicted of an offense and sentenced to a term of imprisonment of not less than two years shall be disqualified from the date of such conviction and shall continue to be disqualified for a further six years from release.The disqualification may only be reversed if a higher court suspends the conviction – not just the sentence – or finds in favor of such disqualified member in such criminal case.
Section 8(4) of the RPA, which provided that disqualification comes into effect three months after conviction, was struck down by the Supreme Court in Lily Thomas v Union of India in 2013. Thus, since 2013, forfeiture after conviction must be immediate.
Shortly after the 2013 Supreme Court ruling, when the Manmohan Singh government was in power, an ordinance was enacted to protect lawmakers convicted of criminal offenses from disqualification, allegedly to save RJD leader Lalu Prasad of disqualification.
Significantly, it was Rahul Gandhi who dramatically tore up this ordinance in front of reporters on September 27, 2013, changing the minds of the UPA government. If Gandhi hadn’t, he would have escaped disqualification by now.
However, if Rahul Gandhi remains disqualified and cannot challenge the Lok Sabha polls in 2024, the BJP, which has made him its main political weapon, will be deprived of what has until now been its easiest target. This may, in fact, not help the ruling party’s electoral cause in any way.
One wonders if the Narendra Modi government would like to surprise the world by introducing a bill or enacting an ordinance to protect Rahul Gandhi from a possible six-year disqualification and confuse the Congress as well as the world press?
It may not be Modi’s style, but it can indeed make the battle for 2024 very interesting.
(Vikas Pathak teaches at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. Opinions expressed are personal)