Ahmedabad: A lower court in India sentenced opposition leader Rahul Gandhi on Thursday to two years in jail on charges of defamation for a 2019 speech in which he referred to thieves as having the surname Modi.
Gandhi will appeal against the order in a higher court, but any jailing for him or his disqualification from parliament would be a blow to his Congress party ahead of the 2024 general election.
The judgment was passed by a magistrate’s court in the city of Surat, Gujarat. The case was brought by a Gujarat lawmaker from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Gandhi, the 52-year-old scion of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, was present at the Surat court, which gave him bail immediately and suspended the sentence for a month.
“Accused Rahul Gandhi is held guilty ... and sentenced to two years simple imprisonment,” Harish Varma, the chief judicial magistrate of Surat, said in his order.
Ketan Reshamwala, an advocate for complainant Purnesh Modi, said the court had found Gandhi’s comment defamatory.
An adviser to the federal government, Kanchan Gupta, said Gandhi could face immediate disqualification from parliament following the conviction, in line with a 2013 order of the country’s highest court.
Congress spokesperson and top lawyer Abhishek Singhvi told a news conference that the party feared Gandhi could be disqualified.
“The disqualification issue is dependent on the stay of conviction,” he said.
“Any reasonable system, any reasonable, fair, non-oppressive, non-biased system would give sufficient time to a person to take some legal steps to stay the conviction,” he said.
In the speech ahead of the last general election in 2019, Gandhi referred to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi and two fugitive Indian businessmen, all surnamed Modi, while talking about alleged high-level corruption in the country.
On Thursday, Gandhi, a former Congress president who is currently an influential MP, told the court that his comment was not against any community.
Congress members rallied behind Gandhi, with many state units planning protests later in the day and on Friday.
“The government is a victim of political bankruptcy”, Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge said on Twitter. “We will appeal in the higher court.”
Gandhi also received support from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that rules Delhi and two of whose top leaders are in jail on what they call trumped-up charges.
“We have differences with the Congress, but it is not right to implicate Rahul Gandhi in a defamation case like this. It is the job of the public and the opposition to ask questions. We respect the court but disagree with the decision,” AAP chief and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal wrote on Twitter.
Gandhi’s once-dominant Congress controls less than 10% of the elected seats in parliament’s lower house and lost badly to the BJP in the last two general elections.
Modi remains India’s most popular politician by a substantial margin.
Unlike in many countries, where defamation is a civil offence, Indian law also has provisions which classify it as a criminal offence punishable with a jail term of up to two years.
The Representation of the People Act, 1951, the law that governs elections in India, mandates disqualification of any lawmaker who is “convicted of any offence and sentenced to imprisonment for not less than two years”.
Gandhi, 52, was on Thursday found guilty of defamation by a magistrate’s court in the western state of Gujarat for an election speech he made in 2019 in which he referred to thieves having Modi as their surnames.
The disqualification comes into effect from the date of conviction.
A formal disqualification order will, however, have to be passed by the secretariat of the lower house of parliament of which Gandhi is a member.
CAN GANDHI CONTEST ELECTIONS?
Gandhi 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.
The law also mandates that a convicted lawmaker cannot contest elections for six years after the end of their jail sentence.
Gandhi represents the Wayanad constituency in the southern state of Kerala.
HOW CAN GANDHI AVOID DISQUALIFICATION?
To avoid disqualification, a convicted lawmaker has to secure an order from a higher court suspending the conviction, lawyers said.
The Representation of the People Act does not give any timeframe for securing such a suspension or acquittal before parliament passes the formal disqualification order.
The disqualification can also be overturned and the lawmaker reinstated to parliament if the conviction is stayed or overturned and a fresh election to the seat is yet to be conducted.
Gandhi was present in the Gujarat court which gave him bail immediately and suspended the sentence for a month, allowing him to appeal against it.
He can secure bail extensions during the appeal period but cannot contest elections until the conviction is stayed or he is acquitted in the case.
“So while it appears from reports that Mr Gandhi’s sentence has been suspended by the court that convicted him, he would have to soon obtain a stay on the conviction from an appellate court to save himself from disqualification,” Supreme Court lawyer Vikram Hegde told Reuters.
Gandhi, a senior leader of the Congress party and the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, will appeal in a higher court, his party said.