“Where is the outrage? Is this all the Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee (DPCC) could mobilise? This is pathetic,” a reporter was heard telling a close aide of Rahul Gandhi. She was referring to the thin presence of Congress and Seva Dal workers who were raising intermittent slogans of “Rahul, tum sangharsh karo, hum tumhare saath hain.” The aide assured her that the party would soon be upping the ante, legally and politically.
That was March 25, a Saturday, when Rahul Gandhi addressed the media from the All India Congress Committee (AICC) headquarters, after his conviction and disqualification as a Member of Parliament. That day, there were more police and paramilitary personnel than party workers. The AICC office is on Akbar Road, in central Delhi, and it was possible that party workers were asked to tone it down; after all, it was Gandhi’s moment of outrage. Flanked on either side by the Chief Ministers of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the Congress general secretary K.C. Venugopal, the party’s communications head Jairam Ramesh, and MP Abhishek Manu Singhvi, it was only Gandhi who spoke. He appeared a little tense, snappy, but at his combative best and unfazed about his disqualification.
In his speech, Gandhi kept up the pressure on the Modi government by repeatedly bringing up the Adani connection: “I asked only one question. Whose Rs.20,000 crore is there in Adaniji’s shell companies? I will continue asking, ‘what is the relationship between Adani and Narendra Modi?’ I have been disqualified because Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scared of my next speech on Adani.”
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After the press conference, Congress leaders went into a huddle reportedly to chalk out a course of action. Protests were not going to be confined to Parliament or the AICC office alone. A meeting of the steering committee, Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) presidents, and Congress Legislative Party leaders was held where plans were laid for the next few months, which included protests at district and State headquarters and holding of press conferences. The party also instructed its mass organisations such as the Mahila Congress, the Youth Congress, and the National Students’ Union of India to organise protests. Postcard campaigns were planned, which included writing to the Prime Minister. From March 29 till April 8, “Jai Bharat Satyagrahas” have been planned at block and mandal levels.
On April 1, the party’s SC, ST, OBC and minority departments were told to mobilise meetings in front of the statues of B.R. Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi in all State capitals. As part of the decentralised forms of protest, the party has also directed local units to conduct corner meetings explaining the sequence of events that culminated in Gandhi’s disqualification. The latter has also sent out messages calling on the public to support the satyagrahas. The party’s social media handles were directed to focus on relaying these messages.
Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification appears to have injected the Congress with fresh energy. The protests are being planned not as party affairs alone but also as mass mobilisations.
It is not, however, an easy path for the Congress. On March 26, the DPCC was refused permission to hold a “peaceful Satyagraha” at Raj Ghat on the pretext of maintaining law and order and to avoid potential traffic disruptions. The area was put under Section 144, which prohibits the congregation of more than five persons. The party had planned similar satyagrahas by PCC units at all State and district headquarters. K.C. Venugopal tweeted, “It has become a habit for the Modi government to disallow every opposition protest. This will not deter us, our fight for truth against tyranny goes on.”
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On March 26, despite the government orders, Congress leaders and workers led by Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge converged on Raj Ghat in large numbers. Almost the entire top brass of the party was present, including General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi, who made a fierce and emotional speech, invoking her family’s sacrifices. “Should we be ashamed that our family members laid down their lives for this country, that their blood is in this flag?” she asked. The programme began with Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite hymn Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram, which Congress leaders and workers sang together.
“The BJP thinks we are weak. If they try to stop us from speaking the truth, we will give a fitting reply. We are prepared to sacrifice anything to protect our democracy and freedom of speech,” Kharge said in his forceful address. The next day saw a united opposition protest at the Gandhi statue in the Parliament House complex. Earlier in the day, leaders of 17 opposition parties had met in Kharge’s chamber. The strategising at a broader level had begun.
- When Rahul Gandhi addressed the media after his conviction and disqualification as a Member of Parliament, he appeared a little tense, snappy, but at his combative best and unfazed.
- The Hindenburg report on the Adani group gave a boost to Gandhi’s accusations of crony capitalism against the Modi government and the Congress is eager not to lose that momentum.
- In response to the disqualification, the Congress protests are being planned not as party affairs alone but also as mass mobilization. Interestingly, most mainstream media outlets simply did not cover any of the protests.
- Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge’s leadership also seems to have made an impact on the organisational morale of the party.
On March 27, the Indian Youth Congress held a protest at Jantar Mantar on a stretch that was barricaded from all sides. Huge flags with Rahul Gandhi’s photo and buntings were seen at the venue with patriotic songs playing in the background. It was a typical Congress gathering, disorganised and amorphous. The Delhi Police in their wisdom decided to lathi-charge the protesters in the tight enclosure, which resulted in a stampede. Later, several protesters courted arrest.
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Interestingly, most mainstream media outlets simply did not cover any of the protests. The country’s largest opposition party held coordinated protests across cities nationwide, but it was neither reported widely nor given front-page treatment.
On March 28, the Congress gave a call for a “Loktantra Bachao Mashal Shanti March” at 7 pm at Red Fort. It was meant to be a torchlight or mashaal march. Wearing black, Congress MPs from both Houses walked hand in hand. Again, there was little to no media coverage.
Many Congress workers courted arrest that day, including J.P. Agarwal, the AICC Leader of Party Affairs in Madhya Pradesh. Venugopal again tweeted that the Delhi Police stopped them from reaching Red Fort. The protesters began their march from the barricades with banners of “I am also Rahul”, “Unmute democracy” and “ Daro Mat” (Do not be afraid). Shakti Singh Gohil, the Congress leader from Gujarat, said that Delhi Police initially said that they would cooperate but later refused permission. “We stopped wherever they put up barricades, but we got a lot of support from the general public,” he said. Fighting elections was not the only priority, said Gohil, adding that the Congress would come to the defence of other parties being similarly harassed by the BJP.
The Congress plans to hold day-long satyagrahas from April 15 to 20 at the State level, and senior national leaders have been deputed to attend them. Monitoring committees and war rooms are to be set up to assist these programmes. “We are not going to be scared. We will raise the same issue of the Adani scam, which the government ran away from in the Parliament session,” said Venugopal at a media briefing.
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The Hindenburg report on the Adani group’s dubious financial dealings gave a boost to Gandhi’s long-standing accusations of crony capitalism against the Modi government. The Congress is clearly eager not to lose that momentum. A total of 100 questions are being posed, at the rate of two questions a day, by Rajya Sabha MP and communications head Jairam Ramesh, all related to the growth of Gautam Adani’s enterprises and the alleged favouritism extended to him by the Modi government.
The government’s misuse of Central agencies against opposition leaders is also a recurrent theme in the campaigns. In fact, joint protests outside Parliament by opposition parties have become a regular feature ever since the government refused to entertain a debate in Lok Sabha on the Hindenburg report.
The Congress is using various fora to make its presence felt. On March 31, at the centenary celebrations of the Vaikom Satyagraha at Vaikom in Kerala, Kharge, in his speech, recalled the historic non-violent movement led by his party workers against untouchability, which finally resulted in the passage of the temple entry law. He made specific mention of the role played by Congress leaders [K. Kelappan and K.P. Kesava Menon led the movement along with T.K. Madhavan]. On the occasion, Kharge said that the “very foundation of democracy was being attacked on a daily basis by those in power”.
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Kharge’s leadership seems to have made an impact on the organisational morale of the party. He seems to be transmitting a fighting spirit to party workers, as well as working more closely with the opposition. With his elevation as party president, there is a more visible unity within the Congress. There are two big challenges ahead: the first is the upcoming election in Karnataka, Kharge’s home State. The second test will be whether the disqualification issue will give extra ammunition to and fire up the Congress campaign.
For now, the party is on the offensive, with speeches, press conferences and marches. In his press conference, Gandhi claimed that his disqualification would benefit the opposition. Will he be proven right?