The ouster from Parliament of India’s best-known opposition leader shows how Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party is manipulating the judiciary, critics say.
The last time an Indian leader held so much power — in the 1970s, when the country slid into outright dictatorship under Indira Gandhi — it was the courts that proved the final speed bump, issuing decisions that aimed to claw back some fundamental constitutional rights.
Now, as the current prime minister, Narendra Modi, tightens his grip on India’s democratic pillars with elections approaching early next year, he faces little pushback from the country’s judiciary. Instead, analysts, diplomats and political opponents say, Mr. Modi’s party has leaned on the courts to protect its own and target its rivals as he pushes India’s layered and vociferous democracy closer toward a one-party state.
The latest example came late last week. A local court in the prime minister’s home state sentenced India’s best-known opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, to the maximum of two years in prison for criminal defamation — the exact length of time needed to trigger his ouster from Parliament and potentially prevent him from contesting elections for years to come.
Leaders of Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party said the decision showed that “the law is equal for everyone.” But legal experts described the case against Mr. Gandhi, prompted by a 2019 speech in which Mr. Gandhi seemed to liken Mr. Modi to a pair of prominent “thieves” with the same last name, as flimsy, and Mr. Gandhi’s allies have said the sentence was akin to “match-fixing.”
Mr. Gandhi’s ouster from Parliament — weeks after the arrest of a top official from another party critical of the B.J.P. and as raids against political opponents and dissenting voices become frequent — left many in the political opposition wondering what limits remained on Mr. Modi’s ability to sideline any challenger.
Mr. Modi has become immensely popular, and powerful, through a combination of Hindu nationalist politics and extensive welfare offerings that are often heavily publicized in the prime minister’s own name.
From that foundation of strength, his government has moved to bend the judicial system to its will through pressure and enticements, while also wielding it as a weapon with tactics that trap opponents in clogged courts.
Some judges or Supreme Court justices who are seen as pliable — either by overseeing judgments favorable to the government or by avoiding or stalling crucial constitutional challenges — have gone on to receive cushy roles like seats in the upper house of Parliament, governorships, and appointments to government commissions.
Those who show streaks of independence — an increasingly difficult proposition as the ruling party ensures that its narratives dominate the public sphere — face transfers and career stagnation. Stalled judicial appointments send a message about the necessity of staying in line.
Mr. Modi’s allies also take advantage of the overwhelmed legal system, which has a backlog of nearly 50 million pending cases, by filing complaints against dissenting voices that can ensnare them for years, sometimes with copy-and-paste submissions stemming from little more than old social media posts. The B.J.P.’s opponents have found little headway with the same tactic.
Over Mr. Modi’s more than a decade as chief minister in the state of Gujarat, which became his springboard to national leadership, the judiciary enjoyed a level of independence that allowed it to go after some of his closest lieutenants.
But since his tenure as prime minister began in 2014, and particularly since his re-election with even stronger support in 2019, opponents say that the Modi government has wielded its array of pressure, enticements and supporter-driven court complaints to erode the independence of the courts and other institutions that had once ensured India’s democratic credentials in a region marked by authoritarianism and political instability.
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The national mainstream media have become largely cowed, dissenting elements of civil society have been harassed and silenced, and parliamentary debate over important policies has been frequently quashed.
Through it all, members of Mr. Modi’s party have repeatedly denied that they have any influence over the judicial system, and have said that the letter of the law is always followed.
Mr. Modi, speaking to a gathering of party workers on Tuesday, said that those who had accused him of subverting institutions were engaged in a “conspiracy” intended to “finish off the credibility” of those institutions.
“Those who are mired in corruption, when agencies take action against them, then the agencies are attacked” with false allegations, he said, insisting that he would continue his clampdown against offenders.
“Isn’t that what you want?” he asked the audience, which broke into applause and “Modi! Modi! Modi!” chants.
Mr. Modi has not gone as far as Ms. Gandhi — Mr. Gandhi’s grandmother — did in the 1970s, when the government suspended elections and civil liberties for nearly two years as it declared a national emergency because of what it called threats to internal stability. But Mr. Modi’s methods, if less blunt, have been in some ways more effective, analysts say.
Ms. Gandhi’s move to rule by decree and throw opponents in prison, known as the Emergency, bred large resistance movements and eventually led to a huge election loss in 1977. Mr. Modi, by leaving India’s democratic institutions intact but bending them to his will, has found cover both at home and with Western allies — already willing to look away because of other more powerful incentives — as a veneer of judicial independence remains in place.
Christophe Jaffrelot, an India expert at Sciences Po, a research university in Paris, said that while the judiciary during Ms. Gandhi’s mid-1970s onslaught had been complacent at times, issuing at one point an important judgment that allowed her government to unlawfully detain citizens, in other moments the courts had forced her to compromise. What also remained intact was a more robust debate in Parliament and a vocal fight from the opposition, he said.
“To compare the Emergency and today’s India from these two points of view is not so much in favor” of the present situation, he said.
Mr. Jaffrelot said Mr. Modi’s methods for exerting influence over elements of the judiciary were not unlike those he has used against political opponents, winning them to his side by dangling new posts and incentives, or using institutional levers at his disposal to arm-twist those who resist.
In the defamation case against Mr. Gandhi, Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a biographer of Mr. Modi and longtime observer of Hindu right-wing politics, said that the B.J.P. had moved with surprising “speed and swiftness” to get the opposition leader sentenced and disqualified from Parliament.
He said the courts would “not move with the same kind of speed” if a case were filed against members of the governing party, some of whom have been accused of repeat offenses including hate speech and calls to violence.
“It is selective use of the same framework,” Mr. Mukhopadhyay said. “Obviously, you are subverting the judicial process, running the judiciary like you run the executive, and doing it with impunity and are absolutely brazen about it — but, officially, the due legal process has been followed.”
The comment that led to Mr. Gandhi’s conviction came in a speech to supporters during the particularly tense election season in 2019. Mr. Gandhi referred to two fugitives who also have the name Modi and asked “how come the thieves share the same last name?” A local B.J.P. legislator in Gujarat, Purnesh Modi, who is not related to the prime minister, filed a petition saying Mr. Gandhi had defamed all people named Modi.
Mr. Gandhi’s associates point to several details in the case that they say suggest it was politically motivated. As the judge was pushing for an accelerated trial last year, seemingly skeptical about the accusation, Purnesh Modi, the B.J.P. complainant, appealed to a higher court to request a stay on his own case. But last month, when it was a new judge at the helm, the complainant suddenly withdrew his request for a stay, quickly reviving the case.
Mr. Gandhi and leaders of his Congress Party maintain that the jail sentence and his removal from Parliament are retribution for his efforts to expose what they say is a nexus between Mr. Modi and Gautam Adani, a billionaire whose fortunes have declined dramatically in recent months after a New York-based investment group accused his conglomerate of stock manipulation. The Adani Group has denied those accusations, and government officials have denied any allegation that the government has shown the Adani Group any undue favor.
The opposition leader’s punishment also presents a contrast to the inaction that followed other heated episodes from around the same time as Mr. Gandhi’s speech, when the protagonists were from the ruling party.
Anurag Thakur, then Mr. Modi’s junior minister of finance, appeared at a January 2020 election rally in New Delhi, where he started a call-and-response chant that urged violence against peaceful protesters who opposed a new citizenship law. B.J.P. members had labeled those protesters, including elderly women who were camped out on a major road, as traitors.
“The traitors of the nation — shoot them,” was the chant, including an expletive, that Mr. Thakur led.
The police in Delhi, under the control of Mr. Modi’s central government, took no action in the case, even after the protesters were fired upon by an armed man and the city broke into deadly riots and clashes.
A judge who expressed “anguish” over the violence and pressed the police on why a case had not been filed was swiftly transferred to a different state. When activists and opposition members later took their plea for police action to a higher court, the judge threw out the case.
The judge, Chandra Dhari Singh, justified his decision by finding a distinction between “ordinary” and “election” speech, and even between whether the speaker was smiling or not as he spoke. “If any speech is given during election time, then it’s a different thing,” the judge said.
After Mr. Gandhi’s sentencing last week over an election-season speech, Mr. Thakur, who has risen to be the senior cabinet minister in charge of information and broadcasting, declared before the news media that no one is above the law, and branded the opposition leader a “habitual offender of insulting language.”
Shazia Ilmi, a B.J.P. spokeswoman, said the case against Mr. Gandhi was “a perfectly legal issue.” As evidence of how the law is applied equally, she cited two local B.J.P. legislators who faced removal after being convicted of the more serious charges of rape and attempted murder.
As for Mr. Thakur and his call for violence, Ms. Ilmi noted that citizens with complaints are free to file a case in courts across the country.