By John McGregor, a translator and political violence researcher
We have grown accustomed to unlikely populist leaders who are clearly more closely tied to the establishment than to disenfranchised voters. The scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, Rahul Gandhi, faces the almost impossible task of convincing Indian voters that he is on a campaign against the establishment.
In May 2022, while speaking in London, former Indian National Congress President Rahul Gandhi provided a troubling picture of India. Describing India as a union of states that requires a ‘conversation’, he warned that:
There is a systematic attack on the institutions that allow the conversation to take place. There is a crushing effect on all these institutions. There is an attack on the constitution, there is an attack on the election system, there is an attack on the broad institutional framework of the country and the result is that … states of India are no longer able to negotiate. And that space, that used to be the space of conversation, that used to be the space of negotiation, is being occupied by the deep state. By the institutions of the state that control the state internally: the [Central Bureau of Investigations], the [Enforcement Directorate]; that’s what’s happening.
By attacking Modi’s ruling BJP and its ideological supporter base, Gandhi tried to position himself as the credible opposition to the threat he described (he is also facing an endless investigation by the ED himself). He continued by describing what he sees as the INC’s role in this opposition:
Our job in the Congress, who actually helped build that structure, helped build that negotiation framework, our job, and not just our job, the job of the opposition is to defend that conversation. To make sure that the structures of that conversation, the Constitution, the institutions, are not captured by the RSS, by one idea, but they are accessible to all the states.
Addressing students at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge a few days later, Gandhi repeated these claims that the ‘deep state’ is engaged in a systemic attack on the structures of democracy in India, adding that the Indian media is controlled by a couple of businessmen who support the government.
Gandhi claimed at the time that the opposition needed to go back to the masses in order to get the support to counter the BJP. He is now planning to follow up this talk with a lot of walking, as he will launch the Bharat Jodo Yatra on 7 September. This is a planned national rally that will travel nearly 3,500 km across 12 Indian states, starting in Tamil Nadu and ending in Jammu and Kashmir.
This ambitious attempt to reconnect with the masses fails to take into account what Gandhi himself acknowledged in London: that the INC was central to building the structures that it now claims have been captured by the BJP and RSS. Gandhi also ignores that the INC itself was central to corrupting these structures.
In 2012, the Aam Aadmi Party was born out of a large-scale movement protesting the large-scale corruption in the Congress-led government, including the 2G spectrum allocation scandal and Coalgate. In 2013, its leader Arvind Kejriwal became the Chief Minister of Delhi for the first time. He was re-elected to this role in 2015 and 2020, and in 2022 the AAP took control of the Punjab Legislative Assembly from the INC.
As the AAP has grown it has adopted and even heightened the communalist rhetoric of the BJP. In August 2022, after Union Housing and Urban Affairs Minister Hardeep Puri from the BJP tweeted that some Rohingya refugees would be placed in flats in Delhi, the AAP publicly attacked the alleged plan. AAP leaders claimed the BJP were conspiring to settle the Rohingyas permanently in order to build a voter bank.
The BJP quickly denied the plan, instead insisting that the Delhi government should be keeping Rohingya refugees in detention centers until their deportation. The Party’s national spokesperson Gaurav Bhatia further emphasized the BJP position on Rohingyas in aggressive terms:
We want to bring to light that Rohingyas are a danger to the security of the country. Kejriwal Ji is doing politics on this issue… Modi Ji’s policy asserts that there would be no compromise with the nation’s security. Our law says that Rohingyas should be deported.
While the AAP and BJP fought to outdo each other, Manish Tewari of the INC tweeted to deny that the Rohingyas are a threat to India, highlighting the tragedy of their current crisis.
Mamata Banerjee’s All India Trinamool Congress has also had consistent local success against the BJP in its home state of West Bengal and has for some time now sought to expand its presence beyond the state and become a truly national party. At a major party rally in July 2022, Abhishek Banerjee, Mamata Banerjee’s nephew and national party general secretary, said that he was tasked with expanding the party outside West Bengal. He claimed the AITC would win seats outside its home state at the 2024 lower house elections.
Like Gandhi, Banerjee and the AITC have repeatedly claimed that the government agencies of India have been captured by the BJP. When the Enforcement Directorate summoned Abhishek Banerjee for questioning over a coal smuggling case on Friday, he and other TMC members tweeted that the central agencies were puppets of the BJP.
AITC has also made some advances in other states, even if it has not been as successful at recent state elections as it might have expected. The party has initially targeted the North-East for its expansion and in November 2021 convinced 12 out of the 17 INC state legislators to defect to the AITC. In February 2022, the remaining 5 INC legislators defected and joined the state government, a coalition that includes the BJP.
The AITC benefits at the expense of the INC (although not exclusively) and the two parties have directly attacked each other (even if there is theoretical support for a larger coalition to remove the BJP from power). Prior to the 2016 state elections, Gandhi criticized Banerjee, claiming she had cheated the people of West Bengal and had talked about corruption but failed to act.
In September 2021, an editorial in the AITC mouthpiece Jago Bangla, explicitly claimed that Gandhi had failed:
But Rahul Gandhi has failed to be the face against Narendra Modi. So Mamata Banerjee is that face.
When Banerjee attacked Gandhi before the 2014 national elections, she didn’t name him, but instead spoke of him as one of a number of upstart leaders from Delhi who she labeled sons and daughters of overlords and landlords. Directly addressing the INC, she reminded the party that it had been in power for 66 years.
Banerjee’s criticism gets to the heart of the problem that Gandhi faces with the Bharat Jodo Yatra. Looking to the people of India for support to oppose the BJP makes sense, it will indeed take a large supporter base to remove the BJP and release its grip from the tools of power. The INC and Gandhi, however, cannot expect to build such a support base on an anti-corruption and anti-state capture march. As Gandhi himself acknowledged, the INC was central to putting in place the structures of independent India. What he fails to recognize, or acknowledge, is that the INC also has its own very real and recent history of exploiting these very same structures, whether to suspend the rule of law and hold on to power or simply to extract wealth while in power. In the multiparty contest to dethrone Modi, the INC cannot easily pivot from embodying the Indian state itself to campaigning on a populist charge to oppose the deep state.