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Rahul Gandhi’s big test as India’s opposition leader


By Cherylann MollanBBC News, Mumbai

Getty Images Indian National Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi (C) arrives at the Parliament in New Delhi on June 26, 2024. India's new leader of the opposition Rahul Gandhi said on June 26 that his lawmakers would not be silenced, in his first speech since formally taking up a post vacant for a decade. (Photo by AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)Getty Images

Now India’s official opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi will play a crucial role

Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party has been appointed leader of the opposition in India’s parliament, filling a post that had been empty for a decade.

It’s the first time Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s main rival has held a constitutional role since he joined politics in 2004.

Mr Gandhi will now sit on committees that make key appointments and act as a counterbalance to the prime minister.

Since 2014, no opposition party had won 10% or 55 of the 543 seats required to claim the post, but Congress took 99 seats in the recent general election.

Mr Modi remains in power with help from allies, but his party fell short of a majority after two consecutive landslides.

The Congress party said Mr Gandhi would ensure the government was held to account at all times.

Some observers say his appointment heralds a positive change for India’s democracy – the opposition has repeatedly accused the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of authoritarianism, a charge it denies.

“This is going to be a turbulent parliament and the opposition is going to take the government to task,” political commentator Neerja Chowdhury told the BBC.

Ms Chowdhury said the role would also test Mr Gandhi’s mettle as a leader.

Although he has been in politics for more than 25 years, and an MP for five terms – he has never been a minister or won a general election for his party.

“He’ll have to lead from the front and make sure there are no ruffled feathers, within his party or the opposition bloc,” Ms Chowdhury said. “He will be accountable for what goes wrong and what goes right.”

Getty Images India's Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi waves to supporters from atop a vehicle during the 'Bharat Jodo Yatra' roadshow in Varanasi on February 17, 2024. (Photo by Niharika KULKARNI / AFP) (Photo by NIHARIKA KULKARNI/AFP via Getty Images)Getty Images

Mr Gandhi led two long marches across India in the run-up to the election

The Congress appointed Mr Gandhi as the leader of the opposition (LoP) on Tuesday, after a meeting with its alliance partners, who make up the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) opposition bloc.

The coalition performed far better than expected in the general election, securing 232 seats. That wasn’t enough to stop Mr Modi from forming a government but it ensured the BJP alone couldn’t get to the 272 mark and it had to rely on allies.

On Wednesday, Mr Gandhi made his first appearance in parliament in his new role.

He congratulated the BJP’s Om Birla, who has been appointed Speaker of the House and assured him of the opposition’s support but also pushed for the side’s opinions to be heard.

“It is very important that co-operation happens on the basis of trust. It is very important that the voice of the opposition is allowed to be represented in this House,” he said.

As LoP, Mr Gandhi will be part of high-profile committees headed by the prime minister. These committees are responsible for appointing key posts such as the director of India’s top crime investigation agency and members of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).

Getty Images Rahul Gandhi with sister Priyanka (left) and mother Sonia (right) addressing crowd in Rabareli  on 24 May 2024Getty Images

Mr Gandhi comes from a family of politicians with his sister Priyanka (left) and mother Sonia (right) also playing key roles in the party

Ms Chowdhury says that a stronger opposition would provide greater room for debate, making it difficult for the government to pass bills without discussions.

“It’s also going to be a lot more difficult for the ruling majority to suspend and disqualify MPs, as we’ve seen happen in the recent past,” she adds.

Last year, some key bills – including ones meant to replace India’s existing criminal laws – were passed in parliament with almost no debate after 143 opposition members were suspended after protesting against a security breach in parliament.

Sugata Srinivasaraju, a political journalist who has written a book on Mr Gandhi, says his new role would also help the Congress leader revive his image as a leader.

“This new job not just brings immense responsibility but will also expect Mr Gandhi to be more methodical, diligent and patient in parliament, which he has not exactly been in the last 20 years,” he told the BBC.

Mr Gandhi became the president of Congress in 2017, but stepped down following the party’s disastrous performance in the 2019 election.

He has often been mocked by Mr Modi and the BJP as a non-serious politician. But analysts say that two long marches he undertook across the country in the past couple of years helped him undo that image.

While he’s no longer the official leader of the Congress, he also won both the parliamentary seats he contested – in Wayanad of Kerala state, and Rae Bareli in Uttar Pradesh – with massive majorities.

“The decision to accept the new role suggests a new confidence… inside him,” Mr Srinivasaraju said.

“He has made a dent and he has to carefully build on it.”



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