Opposition Leader Rahul Gandhi Loses Seat in Indian Parliament

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Opposition Leader Rahul Gandhi Loses Seat in Indian Parliament

His disqualification is a setback to his Congress party. But can Gandhi turn things to his party’s advantage?

Opposition Leader Rahul Gandhi Loses Seat in Indian Parliament

Lawmakers from India’s opposition Congress and other parties hold a banner as they march against the Narendra Modi-led government during a protest outside India’s parliament in New Delhi, India, Friday, March 24, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Altaf Qadri

Top Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has been disqualified as a member of India’s lower house of Parliament, the Lok Sabha. The disqualification came a day after a court in Surat in India’s Gujarat state found him guilty of defamation.

A notice issued by the Lok Sabha Secretariat today said he stood disqualified from the House from March 23, the day of his conviction.

The conviction came in a case relating to a speech that Gandhi, then the president of India’s main opposition party, the Congress, had made at an election rally while campaigning in Karnataka for the 2019 parliamentary election.

Targeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi for alleged corruption. Gandhi made a dig at his last name, which he shares with fugitive billionaire businessmen Nirav Modi and Lalit Modi (no relation to the prime minister). “Why do all thieves share the Modi surname?” Gandhi asked at the rally.

Gandhi’s remark prompted Purnesh Modi, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislator from Gujarat, to file a criminal defamation case against the Congress party leader for allegedly defaming the “Modi community.” Incidentally, there is no Modi community in India.

On March 23, the Surat court declared that it “found Rahul Gandhi’s comment to be defamatory” and sentenced him to two years in jail. It has granted him bail and suspended the sentence for 30 days to allow him to appeal in a higher court.

India’s criminal defamation law provides for a maximum term of two years of simple imprisonment or a fine or both. Critics of the law point out that it is anti-democratic as it curbs free speech. Besides, it is used as an instrument to harass political rivals and silence them.

Describing “the process and the outcome” as “bizarre,” senior advocate and former Congress law minister Kapil Sibal tweeted that “legal processes are used far too often for political ends.”

The political motivations behind the filing of a defamation case against Gandhi are hard to miss.

A two-year jail term would mean that Gandhi will not be able to contest the 2024 general elections. If he is jailed in the coming months, he will not be able to campaign for the Congress. He is among the main campaigners of India’s largest opposition party, the only one that has an all-India presence.

The more immediate consequence is his disqualification as MP. Gandhi represents the Wayanad constituency in the Lok Sabha.

According to Section 8(3) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, “a person convicted of any offense and sentenced to imprisonment for not less than two years… shall be disqualified from the date of such conviction and shall continue to be disqualified for a further period of six years since his release.”

In a 2013 case, the Supreme Court ruled that such a legislator “loses membership of the House with immediate effect,” noted lawyer and BJP parliamentarian Mahesh Jethmalani told NDTV. Gandhi’s disqualification as MP, Jethmalani said, is “automatic.”

However, according to a constitutional expert who spoke to The Diplomat, a convicted legislator will not face disqualification if the appellate court stays the conviction and suspends the two-year jail term.  Gandhi could have avoided disqualification if the government had given him time to appeal and if the appellate court stayed, suspended, or reduced his sentence. Instead, the government acted to disqualify Gandhi before he could appeal against Thursday’s verdict.

Interestingly, over the last couple of months, BJP leaders have been using every trick in the book to silence Gandhi, even calling for his expulsion from Parliament.

The Indian Parliament is in session now and the Modi government is on the back foot, under pressure from the opposition on several issues, especially relating to the Hindenburg Research report on the Adani Group’s “brazen stock manipulation and accounting fraud scheme over the course of decades.” The Congress party has been targeting Modi for facilitating the rise of Adani Group CEO Gautam Adani.

In a speech in parliament on February 7, Gandhi drew attention to how the Modi government tweaked the rules to award major contracts to Adani. Much to the embarrassment of the BJP, Gandhi underscored Adani’s proximity to Modi in the course of his speech by waving photographs of Modi sitting in Adani’s private jet.

Averse to meeting the Congress’ demand for a probe by a Joint Parliamentary Committee into the findings detailed in the Hindenburg Research report, the Modi government has been disrupting proceedings in Parliament and deflecting attention away from the issues that the opposition has raised.

Targeting Gandhi emerged as a useful tool in the ruling party’s efforts in this regard.

The BJP brought out its top guns to attack Gandhi. Its MPs and ministers have accused him of making “wild allegations.” Eighteen portions of Gandhi’s speech – these referred to the prime minister and Adani – have been expunged from Parliament’s records. The BJP also brought a privilege motion against him.

In early March, in speeches at Cambridge University and other events in London, Gandhi drew attention to the “death of democracy” in India under Modi, prompting the BJP to intensify efforts to silence him. It demanded he apologize for his remarks, and called for the constitution of a special parliamentary committee to inquire into the remarks and consider his expulsion from Parliament. “A sedition case should be registered against him [Gandhi] for insulting our democracy,” Giriraj Singh, a minister in the Modi government demanded.

Gandhi’s disqualification as MP must be seen as part of this campaign by the BJP.

The BJP has been maligning Gandhi for several years. Its leaders and supporters have mocked him relentlessly and sought to paint him as unintelligent and incompetent, a privileged person who is out of touch with the masses.

Gandhi’s record as a Congress leader has indeed been dismal, as the party has lost one election after another over the past decade. Indeed, the party’s popularity has waned and the influence of the Gandhi-Nehru family has declined significantly.

The BJP enjoys an overwhelming majority in India’s Parliament. It is running the government in most of India’s states and union territories, whether as a result of winning elections or through murky coalition deals that subvert the people’s mandate. It has tightened its grip through demolishing democratic institutions, including the media.

Yet the Modi government is rattled by the Congress and Gandhi. Recent developments provide pointers to its deep insecurity.

In September last year, Gandhi launched the Bharat Jodo Yatra (Unite India March), which covered a distance of over 4,000 kilometers over the course of about 136 days. Although India’s mainstream media, which is largely pro-Modi, avoided coverage of the march, the months-long event was significant.

The Bharat Jodo Yatra resulted in Gandhi being widely perceived as a tough, resolute, and compassionate leader. It drew massive crowds of ordinary people along the entire route, including in states with BJP governments like Karnataka and Maharashtra, and also in Jammu and Kashmir, where people have generally stayed aloof from politics in the rest of India. Importantly, Gandhi critics seem to have changed their mind about his capacity to lead the Congress party and the country.

Of course, despite the Bharat Jodo Yatra, Modi remains India’s most popular leader. He enjoys the highest poll ratings among India’s political leaders. However, these surveys also reveal Gandhi’s growing popularity and improved ratings, especially in states through which the march passed. The gap between Modi and Gandhi, although large, is narrowing. This did not seem possible even a few months ago.

Gandhi’s disqualification as MP is a setback to the Congress’ election campaign. However, it could serve to energize the Congress party rank and file and perhaps, provide unity of purpose among opposition parties.

Leaders of other parties, including Congress allies like the Dravida Munetra Kazhagam, came out in strong support of Gandhi. Interestingly, the Aam Aadmi Party and the Trinamool Congress, which had hitherto distanced themselves from the Congress in its fight against the BJP, expressed solidarity with Gandhi.

Much will depend on how the Congress strategizes in the coming days and weeks.

Soon after his disqualification was announced, Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera said that the party would fight “both legally and politically.” The Congress party is expected to organize mass protests across the country in the coming days.

Gandhi is expected to appeal against the verdict. Will the higher courts rule in his favor? If he loses, he will have to take a backseat in politics.

Gandhi faces defamation charges in seven cases filed across the country. The Modi government can be expected to push these to their conclusion.

The adverse verdict in the “Modi surname” defamation case and the heavy price he has been made to pay may prompt Gandhi to change his strategy going forward. While Khera has said that Gandhi will continue to raise “difficult questions and exposing crony capitalism and this government’s active role in promoting and protecting it,” the Congress leader could be more cautious in his speeches.

His targeting of Modi, even if true in content, has not brought the Congress electoral rewards. Rather, it may have worked against the party, given Modi’s immense popularity in India.

Going forward should Gandhi adopt a strategy that sees him outline a vision for India that is different from the dark and narrow vision of the BJP; it may well strike a chord with Indians.

Can the Congress turn Gandhi’s disqualification to its advantage?