NEW DELHI: India’s Parliament disqualified main opposition leader Rahul Gandhi on Friday, a day after he was convicted in a defamation case and sentenced to two years of imprisonment. The former president of India’s Congress party and a scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, which has given the country four prime ministers, was found guilty of defamation by a lower court in Gujarat — the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The court convicted Gandhi for comments made in a speech ahead of the 2019 general election, in which he referred to thieves as having the surname Modi.
“Rahul Gandhi, a member of Lok Sabha (lower house) representing the Wayanad Parliamentary Constituency of Kerala, stands disqualified from the membership of Lok Sabha from the date of his conviction, i.e. 23 March, 2023,” the lower house of Parliament said in a notification on Friday.
If a higher court does not overturn the conviction, Gandhi would be barred from contesting next year’s polls, in which he has been seen as a main opponent to the rule of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.
According to Indian law, a convicted legislator cannot contest elections for six years after the end of their jail sentence.
Gandhi took to Twitter after his disqualification to say that he is “fighting for the voice of India” and is “willing to pay any price for that.”
Gandhi is on bail for 30 days and his party said would it appeal the Gujarat court’s verdict. The party led a protest march outside the parliament building on Friday, with opposition leaders carrying a large banner reading “democracy in danger.”
“They (BJP) tried all ways to disqualify him. They don’t want to keep those who are speaking the truth, but we will continue to speak the truth,” Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge told reporters.
“If needed, we’ll go to jail to save democracy.”
Gandhi, 52, is the son of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. His grandmother Indira Gandhi was India’s first female leader, and his great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, was the country’s founding prime minister.
Opposition parties, cutting across their political differences, condemned his disqualification from parliament.
“In PM Modi’s New India opposition leaders have become the prime target of BJP,” tweeted Mamata Bannerjee, chief minister of the eastern state of West Bengal and a strong regional leader.
“Today, we have witnessed a new low for our constitutional democracy.”
But experts say the conviction and disqualification may offer the opposition a new card to play.
“However the Congress does it, it’s going to be a big challenge for them. There is a potential they can convert this disqualification into a qualification for a much bigger thing,” Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a political analyst, told Arab News. But to stay the conviction or have Gandhi acquitted means a long legal battle for him and the Congress, which is preparing for local polls this year and general elections in 2024.
“They are getting ready for a bunch of state elections and parliament polls and would like to package Rahul’s disqualification as an attack on democracy and how voices are being smothered that are opposed to BJP or Modi, but they would have to rely a lot on how determined Rahul is to fight,” said Sanjay Kapoor, chief editor of the political magazine Hard News and former secretary-general of the Editors Guild of India.
“A fall in his morale could see Congress slipping badly in state elections as well as 2024 polls. It’s a big challenge for the Congress and Rahul.”