RAHUL GANDHI CONVICTED IN DEFAMATION CASE: WHAT NOW FOR THE CONGRESS LEADER?
On Thursday, March 22, 2023, a local court in Surat, Gujarat, convicted Congress MP Rahul Gandhi in a defamation case dating back to 2019. The case pertained to a comment that Gandhi made in Karnataka ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections where he wondered how ‘all thieves have Modi as the common surname’. The verdict was welcomed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and criticized by opposition leaders, including Delhi and Jharkhand chief ministers Arvind Kejriwal and Hemant Soren. In this article, we take a closer look at the implications of the verdict for Rahul Gandhi and the Congress party.
The Surat court has sentenced Rahul Gandhi to two years in prison for his comment about Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The verdict has been suspended for 30 days, on request of his legal team, to give him a chance to appeal the guilty verdict. The court’s decision has become a rallying point for opposition leaders to protest against the order.
REACTIONS TO THE VERDICT
The BJP has welcomed the verdict and criticized Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge for questioning the judgment. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has said that Rahul Gandhi should take the Surat court judgment as learning that “words are deadlier than weapons”. Senior BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad has said that if Rahul Gandhi has the right to ‘disrespect’ or ‘abuse’ someone, then anybody who is ‘at dismay’ due to it has the right to file a defamation case against him.
Senior Congress leader Pawan Khera has criticized the BJP over the verdict, saying that ‘Shah and Shahanshah’ want an India where a silent opposition is lying in the corner of a room. AAP leader Raghav Chadha has said that he respectfully disagrees with the Surat court’s verdict against Rahul Gandhi.
WHAT NOW FOR RAHUL GANDHI?
An elected representative sentenced for any offense for two years or more faces immediate disqualification under the Representation of Peoples Act, 1951. A provision that granted three months’ protection from disqualification was struck down in 2013 as ‘ultra vires’ by the Supreme Court in the Lily Thomas case. In Gandhi’s case, the court that found him guilty suspended its sentence for 30 days – on request – to give him a chance to challenge its decision.
This means the disqualification will kick in a month later unless Gandhi can get a stay on the conviction (and sentence) from another court. Rahul Gandhi cannot approach the Gujarat High Court or Supreme Court at this time since this is a criminal case, but a third party could – on the grounds that the procedure and manner of the Surat court’s ruling hurt the larger public interest.
The verdict against Rahul Gandhi has come as a major setback for the Congress party. While Gandhi has been given a chance to appeal the verdict, his conviction could lead to his disqualification as an MP. The Congress party, already facing a leadership crisis, will have to find a way to move forward in the absence of its star campaigner. The BJP, on the other hand, is likely to use the verdict to its advantage in the upcoming state elections. It remains to be seen how the political situation in the country will unfold in the coming days.
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