Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and his close party colleagues are probably well aware that he is least likely to be let off easily in defamation charges filed against him. In this context, Surat court’s rejection of his plea (April 20) for stay on his being held “guilty” of criminal defamation by a Magistrate Court on March 23 may be viewed as perhaps nothing surprising for them. He was granted bail on April 3 by the District and Sessions court until the hearing of his plea seeking a stay on his conviction. The legal battle seeking acquittal of charges levied against him may last a fairly long stretch of time. Chances of this spelling any major legal relief for him till 2024 parliamentary polls are over, as circumstances suggest, may be fairly dim. Decision of Patna High Court to stay lower court’s order till May 15 in the defamation case over “Modi surname” may be viewed as a part of this legal cycle. This was in response to petition filed by Rahul before the Patna High Court on April 22 seeking quashing of summons issued by lower court in defamation case filed against by BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi. Stay granted by Patna High Court spells minimal relief when viewed in context of legal proceedings continuing at other levels.
The stress laid by ruling parliamentarians seeking an apology from him, through ruckus they earlier created in the Parliament, may be viewed as just a symbolic illustration of this political fight having assumed the stage of an Ego Battle. The issue is not of any Modi having been actually being defamed, irrespective of what Rahul may have said, but more strongly the latter’s rivals being fairly irked at their earlier anti-Rahul strategies having lost the appeal they once had. It is not without reason that Rahul is no longer referred to as a “Pappu” as he earlier was. Those who had once used this term regarding him fairly extensively from various platforms have now been restrained out of probably fear of it not only having minimal, even no impact, but also of there being the risk of their thus irritating the listeners. Simply speaking, the nature of his Unite India March, communication engaged by him with people at various levels along with media coverage received by him have contributed immensely to common Indians opting to form their own opinion about him rather than believe what his rivals say about him.
Besides, it is possible, nearly a decade of present government has made a large section of people fairly familiar with nature of political strategies exercised especially when elections at various levels are around the corner. So much so that recently quite a few people appeared to link noise made about rise in Covid cases with political factors. Interestingly, the nature of these speculations is not confined to any particular religion but as rudimentary observation indications covers majority as well as minority communities.
Notwithstanding all the anti-Rahul strategies being exercised by his rivals, certain developments suggest, prospects of only his “popularity” spelling a major political threat for BJP’s performance in forthcoming polls needs to be reconsidered. Perhaps, greater attention needs to be accorded to possible dangers lurking within BJP’s own quarters. In context of speculations being voiced about “Modi-fatigue” and/or that of other BJP leaders pinning for prime ministerial seat, likelihood of intra-party divisions spelling its own decline cannot be ruled out. It may be recalled, the same factor – intra-party conflict – was and continues to be a key cause of decline of Congress.
Possibility of present regional allies of BJP backtracking from National Democratic Alliance (NDA) at the last minute cannot be dismissed. BJP’s policy of aligning with regional parties to gain a foothold in their respective states and then using strategies to lessen their political significance in their own regions seems to have begun being understood fairly well by these parties. It is not without reason that Janata Dal (United) leader, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar chose to part company with NDA and shake hands with Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). The alacrity with which he is reaching out to other regional parties at present cannot also be sidelined.
Undeniably, a few key regional parties are willing to fight together against BJP but they have reservations about having Congress in their camp. In all probability, this difference is likely to be resolved as parliamentary polls approach. If Rahul Gandhi remains disqualified from contesting 2024 polls, prospects of opposition parties reaching an agreement about their anti-BJP alliance (with Congress also as a partner) remain fairly strong. From this angle, anti-Rahul politics engaged in by BJP and its supporters, paradoxically, is likely to lead to a stronger anti-BJP alliance. That they all seem to be talking in the same language cannot also be ignored. These include their anti-BJP corruption charges, economic problems, farmers’ unrest, democratic crisis and so forth. Against these, there certainly prevail electoral significance of BJP banking on its religious-card, anti-Pak terrorist charges, communal incidents along with its promises of greater development as well as Modi-hype.
However, intra-national electoral strategies of BJP in 2014 as well as 2019 banked first on pushing Congress out of power and then on preventing it from returning to power. Chances of this strategy having limited impact in coming elections stand out fairly strongly for several reasons suggested earlier. One is the virtual collapse of negative campaign against Rahul indulged in excessively earlier. Media coverage gained by Rahul because of his march, the defamation case against him and his populist moves – such as eating out in Delhi’s Bengali Market and Old Delhi- have only further boosted his image. In other words, anti-Rahul defamation case together with demand of apology from him- perceived to be Ego Battle by certain stalwarts appears to have politically extended beyond this. With chances of his not being a candidate in coming Lok Sabha elections and possibility of there being a strong anti-BJP alliance, BJP stalwarts may need to revise their anti-Congress and anti-Rahul strategies used earlier by them. As mentioned earlier, prospects of intra-party rivalry creating rift within BJP cannot also be ignored.
True, Modi has been at the helm for nearly 10 years. He has certainly not refrained from going overboard in talking about his “success” in having accomplished what preceding governments “failed” to do in past decades. Irrespective of the credibility of this claim, at present his is the not only voice which is being heard and making some political waves. Compared to preceding parliamentary polls when his rivals’ voice appeared to be rather subdued and quiet against the Modi-hype, the situation seems a little different now. Opposition leaders appear to be more vocal than before. Electoral threat from these quarters seems to have somewhat increased. Irrespective of how opposition parties’ alliance fares in 2024 Lok Sabha polls, there is no denying that political challenge is posed for Modi and BJP from not just Rahul Gandhi and Congress!
Nilofar Suhrawardy is a senior journalist and writer with specialization in communication studies and nuclear diplomacy. She has come out with several books. These include:– Modi’s Victory, A Lesson for the Congress…? (2019); Arab Spring, Not Just a Mirage! (2019), Image and Substance, Modi’s First Year in Office (2015) and Ayodhya Without the Communal Stamp, In the Name of Indian Secularism (2006).