A lower court in Surat, Gujarat — the home state of the prime minister — has found Rahul Gandhi guilty of defamation for a remark he made about Narendra Modi’s surname before the general election of 2019. The case had been filed by a lawmaker who belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party; in response, the court has sentenced the Congress leader to two years in jail. Mr Gandhi, who has been granted bail, is expected to appeal to a higher court. The legal process should continue unhindered even though there is a case to examine whether the defamation law — it has a chequered history in India — is being applied prudently. But the political game, it is apparent, is afoot. Mr Gandhi has been that rare, consistent critic who has been strident in his opposition to the policies and the broader vision of the Narendra Modi-led government. Unsurprisingly, he has been on the receiving end of what the Congress insists is a vast, vicious enterprise of retribution. From an orchestrated campaign to belittle Mr Gandhi’s persona and political wisdom to — as the recent, unwarranted controversy over his remarks in the United Kingdom showed — the ruling party’s repeated endeavours of projecting him as unpatriotic, the Congress leader has been subjected to a litany of challenges.
Keeping the focus on an embattled Mr Gandhi seems to be part of the BJP’s broader strategy for the parliamentary elections next year. The BJP is hoping to gain two advantages by this. First, an election fought on the cult of competing personalities — Mr Modi versus Mr Gandhi — is particularly suited to the BJP’s agenda. The prime minister has got the better of Mr Gandhi in most of these electoral contests. The BJP is confident of Mr Modi repeating these feats. There is likely to be an accrued benefit. Cherrypicking Mr Gandhi as Mr Modi’s principal opponent is likely to impair the Opposition’s unity project: there are several contenders for that slot. What the BJP has to be mindful of is the flip side of this ploy. Its willingness to besiege Mr Gandhi with means foul and fair is likely to lend a degree of credibility to his charge concerning authoritarianism in the country. It might even cause the Opposition to come together, a possibility that the BJP would like to avoid. Additionally, the diplomatic fallouts of one of India’s prominent Opposition leaders being jailed could also be considerable.