Rahul Gandhi, India’s most prominent opposition politician, has been disqualified from parliament, sparking criticism that the snap decision represented “a new low” for the country’s constitutional democracy a year ahead of a national election.
Gandhi was barred from serving as an MP on Friday, a day after he was convicted and sentenced to prison for two years by a court in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat over remarks he made in 2019 asking why people with the surname Modi were “thieves”.
Indian law requires that any lawmaker convicted of a crime and sentenced to imprisonment of two years or more be disqualified from serving in parliament. But the court in Surat, which convicted Gandhi, had suspended his sentencing for 30 days to give him time to file an appeal.
Opposition politicians and civil society activists expressed outrage at the ban, saying that both the defamation case and Gandhi’s barring from parliament reflected poorly on India’s democracy.
The decision made national headlines and drew renewed attention to a polarising political dynasty that some critics had written off as a spent force after Gandhi stood down as leader of the Congress party.
Mamata Banerjee, an opposition figure and frequent critic of the Modi government from West Bengal’s Trinamool Congress party, called the move “a new low for our constitutional democracy” on Twitter.
Shashi Tharoor, a Congress MP, said on Twitter: “I’m stunned by this action and by its rapidity, within 24 hours of the court verdict and while an appeal was known to be in process. This is politics with the gloves off and it bodes ill for our democracy.”
Some legal experts questioned the premise of the defamation case, which was brought by Purnesh Modi, a local lawmaker with the ruling Bharatiya Janata party.
“How come the names of all the thieves are Modi, Modi, Modi?” Gandhi asked in a speech four years ago. He then went on to name three people who share the surname, including the prime minister but not Punesh Modi.
Punesh Modi is no relation to the prime minister but had told the court that Gandhi had insulted all people with the surname Modi.
“I don’t think in any other jurisdiction would you have a statement like this be prosecutable,” Kapil Sibal, an independent MP and senior advocate practising in India’s supreme court who formerly served as a Congress MP and government minister, told the Financial Times. “The process and the outcome are both bizarre.”
Apar Gupta, a lawyer who works on free expression issues, said: “This case is surely an outlier and a solitary instance where a defamation conviction resulted in parliamentary disqualification. This makes it appear this is a case of a political vendetta rather than of repairing a person’s reputation.”
Gandhi is the fourth-generation heir of the family that dominated Indian politics for decades after the country’s independence. He stepped down in 2019 as president of the Congress party after its second successive poor showing in national polls. Before his disqualification, he served as an MP from a constituency in Kerala state.
Many Indians blame the Gandhis for the corruption and mismanagement that proliferated in India during Congress’s rule. Gandhi’s late father Rajiiv Gandhi was in power during the eruption of an arms procurement scandal that led to his electoral defeat in 1989.
In recent months, Rahul Gandhi has regained prominence after his Bharat Jodo Yatra (“Unite India March”), a trek of more than 4,000km from Kerala to Kashmir on which he was joined by thousands of Indians.
After New York-based short selling group Hindenburg Research released a report attacking the Adani Group in January, Gandhi and other Congress MPs seized on Modi’s connections to Gautam Adani, the Gujarati billionaire who founded the company, as a tool to attack the prime minister.
“Modi ji, how many times did you travel together with Adani?” Gandhi asked in a speech last month. “How many times did Adani ji join you later on a visit?,” he said, questioning Adani’s success in securing foreign projects in countries with which Modi has cultivated close ties, such as Israel and Bangladesh.
In a sign of the Adani affair’s political sensitivity, parliament, whose rules are controlled by the BJP, expunged Gandhi’s speech from the record, along with supporting materials that included photos of Modi and Adani together.
After a trip to the UK this month in which Gandhi made critical remarks about the Modi government at talks in Cambridge and London, the BJP accused Gandhi of “insulting” India on foreign soil.
Despite the criticism, most analysts expect Modi’s BJP to win a third term in the election set to be held in April and May 2024.
Additional reporting by Jyotsna Singh
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