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Mar 24, 2023
Why Rahul Gandhi’s Disqualification From Parliament Matters for India and Modi
(Bloomberg) -- Rahul Gandhi, the senior leader of India’s main opposition Congress party, has been disqualified as a member of parliament after a local court convicted him of defaming Prime Minister Narendra Modi — a huge setback for his party ahead of national elections next year.
India’s lower house of parliament said the disqualification was effective from March 23, the same day the local court found Gandhi guilty of making a disparaging remark about Modi’s name.
Gandhi’s ouster marks a brutal turn for his political career in India, which is preparing for regional elections and is host of the Group of 20 this year.
Here’s how Gandhi’s disqualification unfolded:
Who is Rahul Gandhi?
The 52-year-old politician, scion of the nation’s most famous political dynasty, has positioned himself as a challenger to Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party in general elections expected around April 2024.
But Gandhi was broadly written off after Modi’s BJP defeated his party in the last two general elections. Once an unbeatable force in Indian politics, Gandhi’s Congress party has struggled to connect with voters and overcome a reputation blotted by corruption scandals and leadership exoduses.
To revive the party brand, Gandhi recently completed a 2,170-mile trek from India’s southernmost tip to the icy north of Kashmir. In public messaging, he’s sold himself as a strong leader who can counteract BJP’s Hindu majoritarian views in a secular nation.
During a recent trip to the UK, Gandhi criticized Modi by saying “democracy is under attack” in India. He’s also questioned Modi’s association with billionaire Gautam Adani, who has been battling allegations of fraud and market manipulation from a US short seller. Adani’s conglomerate denies wrongdoing.
What was the court’s verdict ?
On Thursday, a court in the western city of Surat convicted Gandhi of defamation and sentenced him to two years in jail for making offensive remarks in 2019 about Modi’s surname at an election rally in Karnataka. The original complaint was lodged by members of the BJP.
However, the court has granted Gandhi bail and suspended the sentence for 30 days to allow him to appeal in a higher court.
Why was Gandhi then ousted from parliament?
Under the Representation of the People Act, an Indian lawmaker convicted of a crime and sentenced to two or more years in jail stands disqualified from parliament with immediate effect.
The secretariat of India’s lower house of parliament issued a notification on Friday that Gandhi, who represents a constituency in southern Kerala, has been disqualified.
What else is at stake for Gandhi?
Gandhi could also be barred from contesting elections if a higher court doesn’t stay his conviction or reduce his prison time. India’s laws don’t allow people sentenced to jail for two years or more to take part in electoral contests for six years after the completion of their sentence.
His disqualification can also be overturned and his position as lawmaker reinstated if the higher court suspends the conviction or commutes the sentence.
Gandhi faces a tough legal battle to quash the conviction, though higher courts usually opt for leniency for defamation cases involving election campaign speeches.
What’s next for the Congress party?
The Congress party called Gandhi’s disqualification “erroneous and unsustainable,” and said it will fight the case both legally and politically.
Party brass led a protest march in the capital New Delhi on Friday, along with other opposition parties. The party has plans to hold protests in other states in the coming days.
Friday’s development will likely escalate conflict between India’s opposition and the ruling BJP ahead of five state assembly elections this year. The BJP has said the law applies equally to everybody and Gandhi must face consequences.
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.
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