“Today is a black day in the history of democracy in India”, said Telangana chief minister KC Rao on March 24th, commenting on the news of Rahul Gandhi’s expulsion from the Indian Parliament. Gandhi, the scion of India’s most influential political dynasty and leader of the now almost-defunct Indian National Congress (INC). He had been convicted by Gujarat court on defamation charges just the day before and sentenced to two years in jail for statements he made during the 2019 electoral campaign in which he labeled “thieves” all those who carry Narendra Modi’s surname.
The leader of the INC promised he would keep fighting for democracy despite having been disqualified from Parliament and stripped of his seat. “I will do whatever I have to do to defend the democratic nature of this country”, Gandhi told reporters, “they are used to everybody being scared of them, [referring to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, Narendra Modi’s party] I am not scared of them,” Gandhi claimed his disqualification was “politically motivated” and many Indians would agree.
Rahul Gandhi, 52, is the heir of the family that most has shaped India’s history from independence and the head of a party founded by his great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister and among the leaders of the nationalist pre-independence movement. For years Gandhi, who is the son, grandson and great-grandson of prime ministers, has been criticized for being a weak politician and an unwilling leader. More recently, he has been trying to revive the Congress’ old role and rebuild its strength ahead of the 2024 general elections to counter the power of the Hindu right.
At the end of January, Gandhi completed the Bharat Jodo Yatra, a 4,000 kilometer-long “unity march” across India. He walked from Kanyakumari in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, to the Northern town of Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir, with the aim of uniting Indians against hatred and fear. The march was meant to bring the party closer to the masses as well as to unite the opposition forces against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has been in power since 2014 and, especially during its second term, has led the country deeper into majoritarian and authoritarian tendencies.
That democracy and constitutional values are facing tough times in India under the Bharatiya Janata Party is no news for those who follow Indian affairs. The move to disqualify Gandhi from his parliamentary seat was the “zenith of Narendra Modi’s arrogance and dictatorial attitude” according to KC Rao. Despite being often in conflict among themselves, most of India’s opposition parties have supported Rahul Gandhi over his sudden disqualification. On the same day he was kicked out of Parliament, 14 parties approached the Supreme Court, alleging that the central government was misusing investigative agencies to target BJP opponents.
Since he has been in power, Modi has been widely accused of using the law to target opponents and silence growing dissent. The INC as well as other opposition forces have alleged that the action against Gandhi was a consequence of his request for an investigation into allegations against the Adani Group. Gandhi’s disqualification, in fact, came at a very sensitive time in which the Prime Minister’s relationship to billionaire and industrialist Gautam Adani is under scrutiny – something Modi has yet to comment on. Gandhi and the Congress have been demanding a proper investigation by Parliament into what threw Adani into the center of a financial scandal.
The Adani group is one of India’s largest multinational conglomerates whose very diverse businesses range from port management to electric power generation and transmission, from renewable energy to mining, from airports to food processing and infrastructure. Gautam Adani was India’s richest man and the world’s third richest, at least until last January, when the New York-based short-seller Hindenburg Research released a report accusing the Adani Group of decades of “brazen” stock manipulation, accounting fraud and the use of offshore shell entities. Right after the report was released, the group lost up to 108 billion dollars, including the tycoon’s personal wealth of 48 billion dollars in the span of a week.
“This is a calculated attack on India, the independence, integrity and quality of Indian institutions, and the growth story and ambition of India,” the group stated, refuting all allegations. Adani Group’s reply proudly linked itself to India’s “growth story” by waving the nationalist flag. The industrial empire of Gautam Adani has been pivotal to Narendra Modi’s vision of a “New India”, which revolves around huge infrastructure projects as engines of development. On the other hand, Adani’s support for Modi’s nation-building plans fueled his conglomerate’s incredible rise. From 2014 to December 2022, Adani Group’s market value jumped from 6.5 to 223 billion US dollars.
That Gautam Adani is a close friend and ally of Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party is no secret. Their closeness led to allegations of cronyism, as Adani’s firms were often assigned government contracts while Modi has long been accused of granting favors to Gautam Adani to facilitate his businesses. Back in the days when he was Chief Minister, Modi was accused of giving low-cost fuel from a Gujarat state-run gas company to the Adani group. In Jharkhand, the state government went against the local energy policy to favor Adani’s power plant, just to name a few examples of how Adani’s societies have been granted special treatment. Between 2014 and 2022, “all of India’s ports, airports, power, transmission, mining, green energy, gas distribution, edible oil – whatever happens in India, Adani is found everywhere,” said Rahul Gandhi in parliament.
Both the Adani Group and Modi’s government have always denied allegations of cronyism. In addition, the recent overseas expansion of Adani’s businesses has somehow been facilitated by the Indian Prime Minister. Rahul Gandhi has repeatedly accused the Modi government of using diplomatic levers to promote Adani’s interests abroad. “Cronyism, an important by-product of neoliberalism in India, has come to denote the phenomenon of the corrupt relationship between political leadership and a select set of business groups”, wrote Prasenjit Chowdhury for The Wire. Yet, Adani is not the only one who was granted favorable treatment by those in power: a number of other tycoons are listed in Modi’s clique.
After Hindenburg Research’s report, India’s markets regulator – the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) – is investigating allegations against companies owned by Gautam Adani. At the beginning of March, the Supreme Court of India finally formed a committee to examine the issues related to the Adani Group’s recent crash. The rapid fall of Adani’s empire may put India’s growth image in jeopardy and has cast a shadow on the country, who has just assumed the presidency of the G20 Forum. India, a country that loves to define itself as the “mother of democracy” and the world’s fastest growing economy, will now have to prove its economy is actually growing at the expected pace and that its democratic institutions are alive and thriving.
The latest events have shown otherwise. Former Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan has recently asserted that India is close to the “Hindu rate of growth” – how the low pace of economic growth rates was named between the 1950s and the 1980s. On the other hand, India’s democracy is not in good shape. As demonstrated by the Congress leader’s disqualification or the recent banning of the BBC’s documentary on Narendra Modi – which was followed by tax raids at the BBC offices in Mumbai and New Delhi – the current government does not seem to be scared of showing its undemocratic character while portraying itself as the victim of an international conspiracy.
Cover Photo: India’s Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi speaks at a public meeting amid heavy snowfall as he concludes the Bharat Jodo Yatra march in Srinagar on January 30, 2023 (photo by Tauseef Mustafa/Afp.)
If you like our analyses, events, publications and dossiers, sign up for our newsletter (twice a month) and consider supporting our work.