The leader of India’s main opposition party, who analysts say had the best chance of challenging Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the 2024 general elections, is no longer qualified to do so.
In a move that many are calling a blow to Indian democracy, Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the Indian National Congress (INC), was disqualified from his parliamentary seat on Friday after a local court convicted him of defaming Modi and sentenced him to two years in jail.
Sidharth Luthra, a senior Supreme Court advocate and former Additional Solicitor General of India, told VICE World News that the imposition of a two-year sentence for Gandhi is “unusual and unprecedented.”
“Defamation cases ordinarily don’t end up with a maximum two-year sentence,” he said. “It appears that at no stage was any jurisdictional or substantial challenge carried to the higher courts that has led to this result.”
The 52-year-old is out on bail and his sentence has been suspended for 30 days to allow for an appeal. Protests erupted across the country following the conviction, with people carrying “Democracy in Danger” banners.
India’s reputation as the world’s largest democracy is on shaky grounds as human rights reports document growing stifling of dissent, often through archaic, colonial-era laws. Gandhi is the scion of India’s most prominent political family, and is also Modi’s loudest critic.
In the 2019 speech that got Gandhi convicted ahead of that year’s general election, which he lost, he accused Modi of corruption and crony capitalism.
“Nirav Modi, Mehul Choksi, Vijay Mallya, Lalit Modi, Anil Ambani, Narendra Modi, they’re a group of thieves,” Gandhi said. Nirav, Choksi, Mallya and Lalit are all fugitives accused of large-scale financial fraud. “How are the names of all these thieves ‘Modi?’”
Gandhi’s conviction stems from the defamation case registered by Purnesh Modi, a politician from Nerandra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, who said Gandhi’s speech hurt the reputation of the wider “Modi” community. In India, surnames are assigned by one’s caste, the ancient Hindu practice that creates social hierarchy based on occupation.
“The facts of the case are quite weak when it comes to criminal defamation,” Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told VICE World News.
“The bad joke Gandhi is being prosecuted for, the way the complainant delayed the proceedings and then suddenly sped things up, and how the parliament moved hastily to disqualify Gandhi—all of this suggests some degree of political motivation.”
Though potentially a politically motivated move, Modi’s popularity far exceeds Gandhi’s, with the prime minister winning two consecutive terms in 2014 and 2019 with an overwhelming majority. The INC controls less than 10 percent of the elected seats in parliament’s lower house. Despite Gandhi’s attempts to overhaul his image, his popularity remains low. Surveys based on voter preferences show that Modi is a favourite for the 2024 elections too.
Soon after his disqualification, Gandhi said he’s being targeted because “the prime minister is scared of my next speech.”
“He is scared of the next speech that is going to come on Adani,” he is quoted as saying. “I am not scared of this disqualification. I will continue to ask the question, ‘what is the prime minister’s relationship with Mr Adani?’
Indian billionaire Gautam Adani, recently lost $60 billion and his position as the world’s second richest man, after US-based Hindenburg Research accused him of detailing decades of “brazen” stock manipulation and accounting fraud. Adani denies the allegation.
Opposition politicians condemn Gandhi’s disqualification as “personal vendetta.”
“This is a great example of the Modi government’s politics of vengeance, politics of threats, politics of intimidation and politics of harassment,” politician Jairam Ramesh, a member of the Indian National Congress, told the media last week.
Indian laws make it mandatory for lawmakers to be immediately disqualified once being convicted of offences.
In the last few days, different opposition parties beyond the INC have united to condemn Gandhi’s conviction and disqualification.
But Vaishnav says the verdict and disqualification shows how powerful the BJP can be and its determination to get rid of any threats to its influence.
“This has changed the narrative of Indian politics in the sense that the focus on allegations of crony capitalism and corruption will now be shifted to Gandhi,” he said.
“But it will further sharpen BJP’s fortunes in the coming elections.”
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