India’s leading opposition figure Rahul Gandhi denounced Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stranglehold on Indian society on Thursday but expressed confidence that the opposition can beat the ruling party in 2024 elections.
Gandhi, who was speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, is a member of the Congress Party and was expelled from the Indian parliament after being convicted of defamation in March for remarks made during a 2019 election campaign.
“I think the Congress Party will do very well in the next election. I think it will surprise people,” he said, before referring to Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “Just do the math, a united opposition will defeat the BJP on its own.”
He accused the BJP leader of polarizing and dividing Indian society, and of orchestrating a “capture of the institutions” in his country.
Modi and his BJP party support Hindu hegemony in India, the world’s most populous nation with 1.4 billion inhabitants, a diversity of faiths and a secular constitution.
But according to Gandhi, the ruling party fostered “a clampdown on the institutional framework that allowed India to talk, that allowed Indian people to negotiate.”
Gandhi’s US visit comes just a few weeks before President Modi’s state visit on June 22, when he will be welcomed with great fanfare at the White House.
With his conviction for defamation, and the subsequent loss on appeal in April, Gandhi lost the legal right to participate further in politics.
Gandhi, the leading face of his opposition party, asserted that his “disqualification” was in fact “an advantage.”
“It allows me to completely redefine myself. I think they have given me a gift, frankly. They don’t realize it, but they have,” he added, lamenting that “thousands and thousands of voices... are being frightened into submission.”
Gandhi was convicted of defamation after declaring that “all thieves have Modi as their surname.”
He was given a two-year jail by a tribunal but is currently free on bail.
The sentence renders Gandhi ineligible, preventing him from taking a seat in Parliament or running in the 2024 general election, which Modi’s BJP party is widely expected to win.
Gandhi is the scion of a political dynasty, the son of Rajiv (and Sonia) Gandhi, grandson of Indira Gandhi and great-grandson of independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru, all former prime ministers.
His Congress Party is a political movement that once dominated Indian politics but whose weight has now been considerably reduced, while Modi’s nationalist party has won over the country’s Hindu majority.