India’s main opposition leader Rahul Gandhi has been disqualified as a member of parliament, a day after being convicted in a defamation case and sentenced to two years in jail.
“Rahul Gandhi … stands disqualified from the member of Lok Sabha from the date of his conviction,” a notice issued by the parliament said on Friday, referring to the lower house.
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In a tweet in Hindi following the move, Gandhi said he is “fighting for India’s voice” and that he “will pay any price for it”.
Gandhi, 52, was found guilty in a case related to his speech ahead of the 2019 general elections in which he referred to thieves as having the surname Modi.
Gandhi, a scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family and former president of the Congress party, will appeal in a higher court, the party said.
‘BJP fearful of Gandhi’s rise’
Congress officials have described the court order as politically motivated and accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of targeting political opponents.
Congress spokesman Pawan Khera told Al Jazeera the party is “absolutely ready to fight this legally and of course politically”.
“We are in the courts of the people and as far as the legal options are concerned, our legal experts are looking into the remedial options available to us,” he said.
“The government realises, and if they don’t realise, they will soon realise that Rahul Gandhi in the parliament may not have been as lethal or dangerous for them, but on the on the streets of India, he will be far more dangerous for them to handle. People are with us.”
From the day Rahul Gandhi ji raised questions about Adani, a conspiracy was initiated to silence his voice.
They never allowed him to speak out, which is a clear case of an anti-democratic and dictatorial attitude by the BJP government.
— Congress (@INCIndia) March 24, 2023
Earlier on Friday, Congress members held protests in some parts of the country against Gandhi’s conviction and two-year-old jail sentence.
Modi’s government has been widely accused of using the defamation law to target and silence critics. The case in Gujarat is one of several lodged against Gandhi, Modi’s chief opponent.
“The BJP is fearful about the rise of Rahul Gandhi and he poses a direct threat to the Modi government,” said Pradip Bhattacharya, a Congress legislator from West Bengal state.
“Black Day for Indian Democracy!” Srinivas Bhadravathi Venkata, president of the party’s youth wing, wrote on Twitter.
BJP president JP Nadda dismissed the charges, saying Gandhi insulted a section of Indians who happen to share the same surname as Prime Minister Modi.
“It is one thing to question government regarding the policies, that would be considered a healthy debate, but clearly the Congress has never followed such rules,” he told Reuters news agency.
Reporting from New Delhi, Al Jazeera’s Pavni Mittal said Gandhi has “accused Modi of crony capitalism and favouring certain business houses for lucrative contracts”.
“He has also led the criticism on minority rights and minority issues in India,” she said.
“All of this plays out in the larger political context when India is heading for general elections next year. So opposition parties believe these [jail sentences and disqualifications] are intimidation tactics to make sure that BJP has an upper hand in the elections.”
Leading face of Congress
Gandhi is the leading face of Congress, once the dominant force of Indian politics, with a proud role in ending British colonial rule, but now a shadow of its former self.
He is the scion of India’s most famous political dynasty and the son, grandson and great-grandson of former prime ministers, beginning with independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru.
But he has struggled to challenge the electoral juggernaut of Modi and its nationalist appeals to the country’s Hindu majority.
Thursday’s court judgement stemmed from a remark made during the 2019 election campaign in which Gandhi had asked why “all thieves have Modi as [their] common surname”.
His comments were seen as a slur against the prime minister, who went on to win the election in a landslide.
Members of the government also said the remark was a smear against all those sharing the Modi surname, which is associated with the lower rungs of India’s complex caste hierarchy.
Gandhi faces at least two other defamation cases in the country and a money laundering case that has been snaking its way through India’s glacial legal system for more than a decade.
What does the defamation law say?
The Representation of the People Act, 1951, the law that governs elections in India, mandates the disqualification of any politician who is “convicted of any offence and sentenced to imprisonment for not less than two years”.
Gandhi’s disqualification comes into effect from the date of conviction.
Rahul Gandhi has been disqualified from the Indian parliament a day after his conviction in a defamation case for criticising Narendra Modi. India revealing itself as quite the Mother of Democracy in the G20 year
— Rana Ayyub (@RanaAyyub) March 24, 2023
Kapil Sibal, a top Indian lawyer and former federal law minister, told NDTV news channel on Thursday that while Gandhi stood automatically disqualified as a legislator, his two-year jail sentence itself was “bizarre”.
“If it [the court] only suspends the sentence, that is not enough. There has to be a suspension or stay of conviction. He [Gandhi] can stay on as a member of parliament only if there is a stay on the conviction,” said Sibal, who is also a former member of the Congress party.
Can Gandhi contest elections?
Gandhi now faces the risk of not being able to contest national elections due in 2024 if his conviction is not suspended or overturned by a higher court before the elections.
Unless Rahul Gandhi gets a stay on the conviction, he can’t contest elections for next eight years (2+6 years). https://t.co/RPgjHBMe2Q
— Arvind Gunasekar (@arvindgunasekar) March 24, 2023
The law also mandates that a convicted legislator cannot contest elections for six years after the end of their jail sentence.
Gandhi represents the Wayanad constituency in the southern state of Kerala.
Several elected politicians have been disqualified from Indian legislatures in the past.
Indira Gandhi, Rahul’s grandmother, was briefly removed by a court decision in 1977 when she was the prime minister.
But legal action has been widely deployed against opposition party figures and institutions seen as critical of the government in recent years.
On Friday, at least 14 opposition parties moved the Supreme Court alleging misuse of federal investigative agencies by Modi’s government.
Last month, federal investigators arrested Manish Sisodia, a top member of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) which governs Delhi state, on allegations he had corruptly benefitted from reforms to the capital’s liquor licensing rules.
Also in February, Indian tax authorities raided the BBC’s local offices, weeks after the broadcaster aired a documentary on Modi’s role during the 2002 Gujarat riots when he was the state’s chief minister.
The Editors Guild of India then said the raids were part of a wider “trend of using government agencies to intimidate or harass press organisations that are critical of government policies”.
Al Jazeera’s Mittal said such criticism is also coming from rights groups who say that since Modi came to power in 2014, the space for dissent in India has been shrinking.
“It’s not just political leaders, but also activists and movie stars who say they have been targeted,” she said.