On Friday, March 24, Rahul Gandhi, a key leader of India’s main opposition party, the Indian National Congress (INC), was disqualified from the Lok Sabha, or the Lower House of parliament. The notice was issued a day after he was convicted in a criminal defamation case by a court in Surat in the State of Gujarat.
Gandhi was subsequently sentenced to two years in prison, in a ruling that has been termed unprecedented and “bizarre.” The 52-year-old leader, who was elected from the constituency of Wayanad in Kerala, now stands at the risk of being unable to contest in India’s general elections scheduled for 2024.
The case against Gandhi was based on a complaint filed by a state legislator from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling, far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) following remarks made by the Congress leader in the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
“One small question, how are the names of all these thieves ‘Modi, Modi, Modi’… Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi, Narendra Modi, and if you search a little more, many more Modis will emerge” Gandhi had said during a campaign speech, referring to two fugitive Indian businessmen who have been separately charged with multiple crimes including money laundering, and the Prime Minister, respectively.
In his subsequent complaint against Gandhi, BJP member and former Gujarat State minister, Purnesh Modi claimed that the Congress leader’s statement had defamed all persons with the ‘Modi’ surname.
After the Court announced its decision on Thursday, it granted Gandhi bail and additionally suspended the jail sentence for 30 days to allow him to appeal the ruling in a higher court.
Meanwhile, in its notification on Friday, the Lok Sabha stated that Gandhi’s disqualification had come into effect from the day of his conviction, that is March 23. The notification was issued hours after Gandhi was already in Parliament on Friday.
Gandhi’s expulsion is based on the provisions of Article 102(1) (e) read together with Section 8 of India’s Representation of the People Act of 1951, under which any person who is “convicted of any offense and sentenced to imprisonment for not less than two years shall be disqualified for a further period of six years” after their release.
In order for Gandhi to evade these penalties, a higher court will, upon appeal, either be required to issue a stay on both the conviction and the sentence, or rule in favor of Gandhi altogether. If this fails, Gandhi will be effectively barred from contesting elections for eight years. He is also facing other cases of defamation and a case of money laundering.
The Congress party has announced plans to hold more protests following some actions on Friday, accusing the Modi government of “killing democracy.” The case has also drawn condemnation from other sections of the political spectrum.
“It’s condemnable that the BJP is now using the criminal defamation route to target opposition leaders and disqualify them as done with Rahul Gandhi now, ” Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader and former MP, Sitaram Yechury said.
India’s criminal defamation law is a relic of British colonial rule, and there has been a sustained demand for its abolition, especially given the deployment of the law by the powerful to stifle dissent.
Yechury added, “This comes on top of the gross misuse of ED [Enforcement Directorate, an organization under the finance ministry tasked with investigating cases of money laundering and violations foreign exchange laws]/ CBI [Central Bureau of Investigation] against the opposition. Resist and defeat such authoritarian assaults.”
The Modi government has been accused of selectively using the arms and institutions of the Indian state to persecute critical voices in the press, civil society, and rival political parties.
In February, officials from the Income Tax department conducted a days-long “survey” at the offices of the BBC. The operation was widely condemned as a form of retaliation against the broadcaster’s airing of a two-part documentary on the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat when Modi was the Chief Minister.