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India's democracy is questioned when opposition leader is expelled from parliament

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The expulsion of a key opposition leader from India's Parliament is raising questions about the strength of democratic institutions in the world's largest democracy. Rahul Gandhi was preparing to run against Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he was convicted on defamation charges and barred from next year's elections. Milan Vaishnav is the director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and he's with us now to tell us what all this means. Good morning. Thanks for joining us.

MILAN VAISHNAV: Thanks so much, Michel.

MARTIN: So first of all, is the expulsion of Rahul Gandhi from the ballot a done deal?

VAISHNAV: In Indian politics, there's no such thing as a done deal. Gandhi was convicted by a court in the state of Gujarat on charges of criminal defamation. The judge sentenced him to a two-year stint in jail, but he also delayed the onset of his sentence by 30 days to allow Rahul Gandhi to appeal. So we are expecting Gandhi to appeal, and he'll probably try first to obtain a stay on his conviction, which would allow him to temporarily retain his seat in Parliament. And then likely the next course of action would be to seek an appeal to overturn the entire conviction.

MARTIN: Well, let's just say for the sake of argument that it is a done deal. How could his absence from the ballot affect these upcoming elections?

VAISHNAV: Well, there is nothing stopping Rahul Gandhi or his family or people around him from continuing to campaign. In Indian politics, people have campaigned for elections from inside of jail cells, even when they haven't been let out on bail. What I think it does is to make him front and center, which is actually probably a good matchup for the incumbent, Narendra Modi, the current prime minister. Rahul Gandhi has gone head-to-head, toe-to-toe with Mr. Modi in the last two general elections, in 2014 and 2019, and both of those elections have resulted in the complete rout of the Congress Party. So the longer Rahul Gandhi is in the spotlight, ironically, the better it is for the BJP.

MARTIN: Well, so here's the thing - Modi remains extremely popular in India. Morning Consult puts his approval ratings at close to 80%. Do you have a sense that - whether this move against Gandhi could change that?

VAISHNAV: I really don't think so. I think Narendra Modi is genuinely popular. Rahul Gandhi suffers from a real problem of image, as somebody who is seen as a part-time politician, as somebody who doesn't have the same kind of political acumen as Narendra Modi and someone who, frankly, just doesn't have the heart for the rough and tumble of Indian politics. So I don't think in the larger scheme of things, the perception of Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi is really going to shift very significantly. I think what this means, though, is this is yet another element in the BJP's efforts, the ruling party's efforts, to really kind of minimize the Congress. Their goal - and they've stated this as such - is to have a Congress-free India, which means not just eliminating the party but, really, eliminating the leadership and their sympathizers.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, and apologies that this is a complex question for a short amount of time, but does this - what does this whole episode say about the state of democracy in India?

VAISHNAV: Well, I think what it tells us is that there is, really, shrinking space for opposition politics, shrinking space for dissent and the real consolidation of a kind of dominant party run by Mr. Modi. But it's important to point out that the law on criminal defamation that is plaguing Rahul Gandhi is a colonial-era law that all governments in India have used to their advantage. So Modi and the BJP have not had to invent any new tools. They're just implementing what's already on the books.

MARTIN: That's Milan Vaishnav. He's the director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Thank you.

VAISHNAV: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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