Rahul Gandhi has sought an opportunity to explain his position in the Lok Sabha on the BJP’s accusation that he insulted India during his recent UK visit and its demand that he apologise, demonstrating his determination to call the ruling dispensation’s bluff.
Rahul attended Parliament on Thursday but did not get an opportunity to respond to the government’s allegation of defaming India as Speaker Om Birla adjourned the Lok Sabha.
Rahul later went to the Speaker’s chamber and asked for an opportunity to answer the charges in the House. Later, Rahul told a news conference: “Four ministers have spoken against me in the Lok Sabha. It is my right to respond to them. There is no clarity but I don’t think I will be given an opportunity to speak. I hope they allow me. If Indian democracy is functioning, I would be able to say my piece in Parliament.”
Rahul added: “What you are seeing is a test of Indian democracy. After four leaders of the BJP have made an allegation against a member of Parliament, is that member of Parliament going to be given the same space that those four ministers have been given? Or, is he going to be told to shut up? That’s the real question before the country right now.”
By taking this position publicly, Rahul has mounted moral pressure on the Speaker because parliamentary norms and traditions allow members to respond to allegations made against them in the Houses. Rahul declined to get into details of the subject before the media since he felt it was his duty to explain his position before Parliament first, but he promised to get back and discuss the issues concerned after that.
The Congress leader’s demand to speak on the controversy in Parliament faces the government with a challenge since he can be expected to use the opportunity to raise the Adani controversy in the House. If that happens and the Speaker expunges the remarks — as he has done before — it will again draw attention to the curbs on the freedom of expression of Opposition politicians in India.
Rahul had in the UK spoken of a threat to Indian democracy and alleged that mikes were often switched off in Parliament to prevent criticism of the government. On Thursday, Rahul said the controversy over his London interactions had been created to divert attention from the allegations against the Adani group, whose proximity to Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been at the heart of the Congress’s attacks on the government on the subject.
“The story started with my speech on the Adani issue. The Prime Minister is scared of the Adani issue. That’s why they won’t allow me to speak again,” he said. “But the main issue is still on the table — why is the entire India-Israel defence contract given to Adani? What happened in Sri Lanka, Australia, Bangladesh and whose money is in the shell companies? The fundamental question about Modi’s relationship with Adani is unanswered.” If the government’s intention has been to use Rahul’s UK remarks to deflect attention from the Adani controversy, the Congress wants to turn the tables by using those same remarks to go deeper into the Adani affair.
The party wants a full-fledged debate on Rahul’s observations to highlight the threat to Indian democracy, which is bound to drag in not just the Adani controversy and the government’s refusal to order an investigation but other uncomfortable issues as well. The Opposition has choked the escape route for the government by opting, at the Congress’s insistence, to stick to the Adani controversy instead of bringing the misuse of central agencies to the forefront. The parliamentary stalemate too has helped underline the perception that the government’s priority is to defend a businessman against allegations of malpractice instead of enforcing the principle of accountability.
The Opposition has no special interest in allowing Parliament to function as long as the message goes out that the government is running away from scrutiny. And the Opposition parties are finding creative ways to emphasise that message. A day after the thwarted attempt to march to the Enforcement Directorate office — which may have benefited them in terms of optics and messaging — Opposition MPs on Thursday formed a human chain on Parliament’s premises, again flagging the government’s rigidity.
The Congress’s readiness to debate Rahul’s UK comments in Parliament has already blunted the edge of the BJP’s accusations. It’s the government that is being seen as shying away from a debate, not least because of Modi’s history of badmouthing past Indian governments on foreign soil. The Congress is spoiling for a chance to argue its point that criticising the government of the day and discussing ground reality does not constitute an insult to India.