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India’s dying democracy

India’s dying democracy

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India’s dying democracy

Rahul Gandhi, the most recognisable opposition figure in India, has been disqualified from his seat in parliament and faces two years in prison after a court rejected his appeal against a recent defamation conviction for calling Prime Minister Narendra Modi a thief. 

So what? Since Modi swept to power in 2014, India has veered towards Hindu nationalism, an extreme political ideology linked to 1930s fascism. Analysts say extremists have now infiltrated or subdued almost every element of the state, media, judiciary and civil society in a country of 1.4 billion people. 

The case against Gandhi looks like a crude hack job designed to take him out of political contention. But it is also making him a martyr. While many have dismissed him as a mediocre and entitled politician, the future of the world’s largest democracy is intimately tied to his fate.

A passage across India. Gandhi’s great-grandfather, grandmother and father were all titanic leaders. Not so Rahul:

  • This political heritage has been an easy target for BJP officials, who cast him as a pampered Persian (foreign) prince, groomed to rule.
  • In two general elections he has come up short against the might of the BJP and the religious fervour Modi inspires. 
  • His secular India National Congress Party is a shadow of its former self, commanding just 50 seats in parliament against the BJP’s 300. 

But last year, the 52 year-old channelled his namesake, Mahatma. Gandhi grew a rugged beard and marched 2,200 miles, escorted by moustached men with submachine guns, to reconnect spiritually with his country. Thousands turned out to greet him wherever he went.

“No Indian leader has done anything of that order, and he got massive public support,” says Sushant Singh from the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi.

“This frivolous and weak case against him… it’s like something you would see in Putin’s Russia or Erdoğan’s Turkey. But it clearly shows Modi and BJP are taking him very seriously now.”

Show trial. In March, Gandhi was convicted of defamation by a court for an offhand remark in a campaign trail speech in 2019. He linked the prime minister with two high-profile criminals, saying: “Why is it that all thieves have Modi as a common name?” 

  • The case was filed in Gujarat state, Modi’s political stronghold, by another legislator called Modi who argued it defamed Modis everywhere. 
  • The case was stagnant for years, but when Gandhi toured Britain in March, warning that India’s democracy was dying, prickly BJP officials (see raids on the BBC) were outraged. Gandhi was convicted as soon as he returned.  
  • The judge in his case used to be the lawyer for Amit Shah, Modi’s right-hand man and home affairs minister.
  • The maximum sentence of two years was given – the exact length needed to disqualify an MP from parliament.

London and Washington have refused to criticise the ruling. Only Germany has raised concerns about “standards of judicial independence and fundamental democratic principles”. Most Western governments are far more concerned with having India onside to counter the other Asian giant across the Himalayas.

Making of a martyr. The conviction could still work to Gandhi’s advantage. He will appeal again in Gujarat. If that fails, he can go to India’s Supreme Court, which is not completely filled with Modi loyalists yet. They could look favourably on his case, meaning he would automatically be reinstated as an MP, and the whole process would generate publicity and burnish his credentials as an anti-Modi martyr.

​“Rahul Gandhi’s importance does not come from who he is anymore,” says Singh. “His importance comes from where India’s democracy is going.”


Twitter panic 
One big question arising from last month’s collapse of Silicon Valley Bank was whether tweeting by anxious deposit-holders accelerated or even caused the bank run, or merely recorded it. Knowledgeable people said at the time that social media commentary juiced the panic, and the first stab at respectable research seems to confirm it. Five finance professors analysed vast volumes of tweets on SVB posted between March 1 and 14 and found a clear correlation between the intensity of negative language about the bank and stock losses in the following hours and minutes. So did Twitter cause the run? Actually, no. The FT cites multiple sources who agree systemic dangers including over-exposure to long-dated bonds were lurking in plain sight on SVB’s balance sheet a year before it failed. 


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The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Kenya cults
Kenyan police have dug up more than 70 bodies thought to belong to members of a suicide cult. Authorities believe that Paul Mackenzie Nthenge, head of the Good News International Church, persuaded fellow church members to starve themselves so they could “meet Jesus” in the afterlife. Exhumations began on Friday in a forest in eastern Kenya, with the death toll rising as more graves were discovered. This is not the first time religious cultism in Kenya has made headlines: in 2020 a British woman who had travelled to Kenya before lockdown was found dead at the home of a spiritual leader in the city of Mombasa, and in 2018 Kenyan authorities had warned against a group called the Young Blud Saints, which recruited university students in Nairobi. Its members were required to “sacrifice what they love most” to prove their loyalty.

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

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Summer is coming early to Spain – and not in a good way. Temperatures across the country are predicted to rise to 30C this week, with some regions hitting 40C. The high temperatures, along with high winds and low humidity, will put most of the country at risk from wildfires, according to Spain’s meteorological agency. The 40C temperatures mean Spain will feel its first heat wave of the year a month earlier than in 2022 (which was also historically early). The country is also dry – Spain had its second warmest and driest March on record – with towns across northern Catalonia already under water rationing. The Ter-Llobregat river system, which supplies Barcelona and other towns, has seen its reservoirs shrink to 27 per cent capacity. Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, warned parliament last week that drought will be one of the “​​central political and territorial debates” within Spain over the coming decades.    

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Tucker Carlson
Why did Fox News and Tucker Carlson “part ways”? Where to start? A semi-plausible version from within Murdochland says his dissing of colleagues was the last straw. Those colleagues include political staff who called Arizona for Biden on the night of the 2020 election and a former booker for Carlson’s show who’s suing him for sexist discrimination. But his departure is bigger than payback for internal indiscretions. Carlson was the $20 million-a-year poster child of the largely fact-free infotainment that earned Fox $14 billion last year and reached its apogee when he aired footage of the January 6 insurrection that he claimed showed it wasn’t an insurrection. His removal after last week’s $787 million settlement in the Fox Dominion defamation case is a damage limitation on a par with the 2011 closure of the News of the World. Fox stock fell 3 per cent on news of the decision, which the WSJ says was taken by Lachlan Murdoch. His father is having a rough few weeks as well.

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Will Brown

Additional reporting by Giles Whittell, Jess Winch and Carla Conti.

Photographs Getty Images

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