Indian opposition leader's speeches in Britain cause ructions at home

By Murali Krishnan - RFI
MAR 26, 2023 LISTEN

For the past fortnight, India's ruling Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) and the Congress, the main opposition, have been engaging in a war of words in parliament over Congress leader Rahul Gandhi's remarks on Indian democracy during a recent visit to London.

During his trip, Gandhi met an eclectic audience including journalists, academics, researchers, and civil society activists.

Gandhi, 52, who was disqualified as an MP on Friday in a separate criminal defamation case, has been the eye of the storm following his week-long speaking tour in the UK where he bemoaned the crumbling structures of Indian democracy.

Restricting free speech

“Everyone knows and it's been in the news a lot that Indian democracy is under pressure, is under attack, right. I am an opposition leader in India and we are navigating that space,” Gandhi said in Cambridge University.

“What is happening is that the institutional framework which is required for a democracy – parliament, free press, the judiciary – just the idea of mobilisation, just the idea of moving around … these are all getting constrained.”

During his interaction with an audience in Chatham House, an independent policy institute, he pointed out that the so-called defenders of democracy, which are the United States and European countries, seem to be oblivious that a huge chunk of the democratic model has come undone.

Incensed by Gandhi's comments, the BJP accused him of maligning India on foreign soil and seeking foreign intervention, while the Congress hit back at the ruling party by citing instances of Prime Minister Narendra Modi raising internal politics abroad.

“India's prestige has not been attacked in such a manner before. Political differences may be there but there cannot be a graver crime than to seek interference from foreign powers,” parliamentary affairs minister Pralhad Joshi told reporters.

“Anger prevails across the country for the grave insult Rahul Gandhi has inflicted upon what the world acknowledges as the mother of democracy."

Charge and counter-charge

The Congress, on the other hand, mounted a strong defence of its leader, alleging that it was Modi who has been saying things abroad about India and the opposition.

“In China, Modi said: 'Earlier you felt ashamed of being born in India, but now you feel proud to represent the country'" said Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge. "Who said this? The prime minister said it.

"This is blatant politics because Rahul Gandhi didn't say what he's accused of," said Congress MP, Shashi Tharoor.

"Gandhi specified that we'll solve issues internally and just want everyone to be aware that Indian democracy is a global public good.

"There's nothing that he needs to apologise for," added Tharoor.

BJP and Congress dig their heels in

The controversy has provoked a parliamentary impasse with proceedings washed out in protests over the last fortnight since the beginning of the second part of the budget session.

“In India, political speeches are often scrutinised very closely, especially if they touch upon sensitive issues or political controversies.

The reactions to a speech can also be influenced by the speaker's political affiliation, their past statements and actions, and the audience's political leanings,” said a ruling party MP.

With Gandhi's disqualification as an MP, he now faces the risk of not being able to contest national elections scheduled in 2024 if his conviction is not suspended or overturned by a higher court before campaigning begins.

Officials pointed out that he can be saved if he manages to get the conviction overturned or reduced to less than two years, ending the disqualification clause.