That moment in Indian politics

April 2, 2023

Following a quick conviction for defamation, Rahul Gandhi has been expelled from the parliament

That moment in Indian politics


here is a particularly poignant scene in the Swedish movie Force Majeure directed by Osten Lund. A happy family on a short vacation at a ski resort is having their lunch overlooking the serene snow clad mountains when they suddenly hear a loud bang and see a mountain load of snow tumbling down towards them. When the alarmed wife asks whether it’s coming towards them, the husband calmly replies, “Don’t worry. It’s a controlled one.” As it happens, within seconds, it is onto them and people start running away to safety. The children start shrieking, while the wife is trying to hold on to them. Amidst all the chaos of an avalanche, one sees the husband grabbing his gloves and mobile phone and running away.

Lo and behold. There was actually a controlled avalanche here and it turns out to be only a snow drizzle. Everyone is safe. Soon the sky turns blue and the sun is back to its brilliant normal. The family are seen re-settling. We also see the husband coming back and quietly sitting down with them. There is an awkward silence. The entire movie then follows from this single blip of an event that has changed their lives forever. Not because of the avalanche, but because how people from the same family behaved differently in that apocalyptic moment. That brings in the rationale of the title of the movie, a legal term, force majeure, which Wikipedia says is a common clause in contract law, (from French: overwhelming force). It essentially frees the parties from liability or obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond their control, such as a war, strike, riot, crime, epidemic or sudden legal change prevents one or both parties from fulfilling their obligations under the contract. In the movie, from then on, gloves are off and no-holds-barred chaos ensues.

The purpose of invoking this cinematic moment was not to delve into an idle movie review, but to underline how Rahul Gandhi’s quick conviction in a matter of days at the hands of a local court in Surat, Gujarat, and the immediate follow-up in terms of his disqualification from the Lok Sabha defines that moment of force majeure in India - a moment, where no established rules of the game apply any longer and the gloves are off.

The disqualification of Rahul Gandhi as a member of Lok Sabha occurred as a result of Gandhi’s conviction and two-year prison sentence on charges of criminal defamation related to comments he made about Prime Minister Narendra Modi‘s surname.

During the 2019 Indian general election campaign Gandhi had said: “Why do all these thieves have Modi as their surname? Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi, Narendra Modi.” The case was filed by a member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, who claimed that Gandhi had defamed all people with the surname Modi. Gandhi’s lawyers have appealed the verdict and obtained a one-month stay on the sentence. But if the conviction is upheld, he will be unable to hold any public office for eight years from the date of his conviction.

Amidst much that is open to interpretation and conjecture, the seemingly out of the blue conviction and subsequent expulsion from the parliament are jarring facts. What remains to be seen is whether this will lead to a mass protest.

Various interpretations from both sides have been given to this quick fire act by the government. While the government, the ruling party and their supporters are busy calling it a case of just conviction, as a result of Rahul Gandhi’s anti-OBC stance (Other Backward Castes, a category of sub-castes ostensibly lower down the Hindu caste hierarchy, but above Dalits) and so on, various questions have been raised on the lightning speed of conviction without a trial, on the fact that it all happened in a case which was in suspension for over a year based on the petitioner’s demand and suddenly got revived in the last few weeks.

Questions have also been raised about how it seems to be another ploy by Narendra Modi and his party to deflect attention from the ongoing Adani controversy, which Rahul Gandhi has been assiduously following for years and even more in recent months. Questions have been raised about how the regime has been waking up to the fact that their consistent portrayal of Rahul as a pappu, doesn’t hold water any longer, especially after his recent Bharat Joro Yatra (Unite India pilgrimage), where he travelled on foot covering thousands of miles, meeting scores of people along the way.

Amid much that is up for interpretation and conjecture, the seemingly out of the blue conviction and his subsequent expulsion from the parliament are facts that stand out. What remains to be seen is whether this will finally lead to a mass protest against an entrenched and arrogant ruling elite, thriving on the hate-filled anti-civil rights, anti-Muslim propaganda at home and pitching itself as the ‘mother of democracy’ internationally. The irony is huge.

To get back to force majeure, it would be erroneous to see this moment as the one defining that moment. The actual force majeure moment was when the BJP took power in 2014. Another force majeure moment came when the government scrapped Article 370 in Kashmir, dissolving its special status; another when an entire bench of the Supreme Court gave a unanimous verdict in favour of a Ram temple; another when they brought in a law to set aside Triple Talaq; and yet another when they brought in Citizenship Amendment Act, dangling a fresh sword over the heads of millions of Muslims in the country.

Every time the opposition refused to come together even as the BJP kept on telling everyone, that for them it’s no holds barred already. They are never going to follow the rules of the game. In their bestseller How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt point out how erosion of basic norms and constitutional forbearance, are the final two pillars, never stated in letter but always adhered to in practice, that keep the practice of democracy going. The first time, when these were not adhered to in the United States of America, it brought Civil War. Today, it’s once again threatening to partition that country. One sincerely hopes, we haven’t reached that moment.

The writer has remained associated with social activism for many years. Currently, he is an independent researcher and writer

That moment in Indian politics