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18 May 2024 18:00
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  •   Home > News > International

    Rahul Gandhi is leading a mega-alliance against Narendra Modi in the Indian election

    Rahul Gandhi is the only serious challenger Narendra Modi faces in India. And this time, he's fighting with a mega-alliance to "save democracy".


    Over the last two years, he has walked the length and much of the breadth of India, been convicted for defamation, suspended from parliament, and now, had his party's funds frozen.

    Rahul Gandhi, India's main opposition face and leader of the Congress party, has had a tumultuous run-up to the world's biggest-ever election.

    He's walked more than 4,000 kilometres from the tip of south India to the reaches of the north on his "Bharat Jodo Yatra" (Unite India March), and again across much of the country from east to west on his "Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra" (Uniting India for Justice March). 

    He's been convicted of defamation for suggesting that those with the last name Modi are corrupt, and then had that conviction stayed by the Supreme Court.

    He's been expelled from parliament (off the back of that case) and re-admitted months later.

    He has also borne the brunt of a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) campaign against him for the last two decades.

    The BJP is far and away India's richest political party, holding assets worth $1.1 billion in 2021-22, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms.

    In comparison, the Congress in the same period held assets of about $147 million.

    The mighty BJP machinery, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been successful in labelling Rahul Gandhi "Pappu" (simple-minded) and "Prince" throughout his political career.

    Critics argue he lacks the political finesse required to rival Mr Modi.

    Many, including Congress supporters, feel he owes his position to his pedigree.

    He's the son of the sixth prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, the grandson of the first woman prime minister, Indira Gandhi, and the great-grandson of India's first-ever prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

    Each one of them has steered India's grand old party, the Congress, at various junctures.

    But beneath the veneer of privilege also lies a sombre narrative.

    Both Rahul Gandhi's father and grandmother were assassinated while in office, leaving him and his sister to be raised by their mother, Sonia Gandhi.

    Despite being an Italian Christian immigrant with no previous ties to India, Sonia emerged as a formidable politician in her own right, assuming leadership of the Congress party after her husband's death.

    She served as a long-time MP from Rae Bareli in the Hindi heartland and currently represents Rajasthan in the upper house, a state where the BJP holds power.

    In a different era, Rahul Gandhi's lineage would have been a boon to his political prospects, said Varghese K George, resident editor of The Hindu, one of India's most prestigious newspapers.

    Not so in the India of 2024.

    "He is what sociologists would call a 'deracinated' person," he said.

    "His parentage is mixed in terms of religion, caste, ethnicity, etc.

    "Rahul Gandhi cannot claim to belong to any particular group, and these are major determinants of what makes a leader in Indian politics right now … it's a huge disadvantage for him today."

    But in just the last couple of years, many find the insults against Rahul Gandhi ringing hollow. 

    A new Rahul Gandhi?

    Mr George said what set Rahul Gandhi apart was the widespread perception that he is the only opposition leader who cannot be coerced or tempted into making deals with the ruling Hindu nationalist BJP.

    Where many loyalists of several parties have defected to the BJP, it's perceived that the Gandhis will not be pulled away.

    "Rahul Gandhi has managed to build for himself an image as the leader, the singular leader, who is the antithesis of Narendra Modi," Mr George said.

    "He is the only viable option if you actually have to oppose Narendra Modi's politics.

    "So that impression has been built, particularly in the last year, because of his very strident and consistent articulation of what he stands for."

    Chandrachur Singh, an associate professor of political science at the University of Delhi, largely agrees.

    He said Rahul Gandhi had emerged from the shadows of his previous image as a naive politician.

    "Rahul is accepted amongst the people as a leader who is fearless and is capable of launching attacks," Dr Singh said.

    "The only thing is that the attacks aren't very consistent … it may not translate into electoral victory, but that's because, at the organisational level, the Congress remains weak."

    In his own words, Rahul Gandhi is fighting for democracy, secularism, and the constitution.

    "Modern India cannot exist without our constitution and our democracy," he said in a recent speech.

    And in another: "The one who has a public relationship with religion, who displays it on his chest, he tries to take advantage of it. I do not try to take advantage of my religion." 

    Strong support in the south

    It's a message that strikes a chord in the southern state of Kerala from where he was elected to parliament.

    As a state, Kerala has the highest literacy rate, some of the highest social development indicators, and the lowest poverty rate in the country.

    It is also the only state with a communist government in power.

    And Rahul Gandhi's seat of Wayanad is particularly unusual in that it has a large minority population — 45 per cent Muslim, 41 per cent Hindu, and 13 per cent Christian.

    A fact the BJP uses to argue that Rahul Gandhi chooses to contest from there because he does not have popular support with India's majority. 

    But for Wayanad, Rahul Gandhi's message of inclusivity and communal harmony, at a time of religious animosity, has resonated.

    In 2019, he won the seat by a margin of more than 430,000 votes — the biggest win in any constituency in the state.

    His supporters say it's his humanity and the care he shows for the people of the district that makes them vote for him.

    Haneefa, a businessman from Kalpetta, said he trusted Rahul Gandhi with the country's future.

    "He is trying to restore democracy in the country for all Indians," he said at Rahul Gandhi's roadshow where he filed his nomination for the election.

    "It's our responsibility to show solidarity with someone who is advocating secularism."

    Opposition ups the stakes

    Rahul Gandhi has been sounding the alarm about the "death of democracy" for months, but as the elections kick-off, the call is especially loud.

    He accuses the government of using authorities like the Income Tax agency and the Enforcement Directorate to stifle his party's campaign by freezing their bank accounts.

    "Twenty per cent of India votes for us and we can't even pay 2 rupees for anything," Rahul Gandhi said.

    "It has been orchestrated to cripple us in the elections."

    The government says only a few Congress accounts have been frozen, but the party says a lien has been put on them all, effectively paralysing its financial resources.

    Faced with the possibility of a third consecutive term for the Modi government, the Congress has stitched together a mega-alliance of more than two dozen national and regional parties — the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, or INDIA.

    While the coalition appears tenuous, as political coalitions in India tend to be, it remains intact, despite the historical rivalries among its member parties.

    Dr Singh said in the eyes of the public, hopes weren't high.

    "They look at the alliance with some optimism or with a thrill when they go to vote," he said.

    "But I don't think they have great expectations in terms of their capacity to dislodge the government."

    Pre-election surveys and experts overwhelmingly predict an incumbent victory, with the BJP and its alliance, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), eyeing a tally of 400 out of the 543 seats.

    Rahul Gandhi and the INDIA bloc say this could be the country's last chance to "save democracy". 

    The recent arrests of two of the alliance's chief ministers, Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi and Hemant Soren in Jharkhand, underscore Rahul Gandhi's call to the voters that it's now or never.

    "When pressure is put on the umpire and the captain, when players are bought off and the match is won … in cricket it is called match-fixing," he said.

    "We have the polls before us. Who selected the umpires? Before the match started, two players were arrested … Narendra Modi is trying to do match-fixing for these polls."

    Addition reporting by Ishadrita Lahiri


    ABC




    © 2024 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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