An Indian court on Thursday dismissed opposition leader Rahul Gandhi’s plea to stay his conviction in a criminal defamation case that resulted in his expulsion from Parliament.
Gandhi, a fierce critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his main challenger in 2024 polls, was ousted after a court last month sentenced him to two years in prison for defamation for mocking Modi’s surname in a 2019 election speech.
A court in Modi’s home state of Gujarat suspended the prison sentence earlier in April for the duration of the appeal process.
A man who shares the prime minister’s surname, which is common in Gujarat, accused Gandhi of defamation over the speech in which he asked, “Why do all thieves have Modi as their surname?” Gandhi then referred to three well-known and unrelated Modis in the speech: a fugitive Indian diamond tycoon, a cricket executive banned from the Indian Premier League, and the prime minister.
The petitioner who filed the case is a member of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in Gujarat but is not related to the prime minister or the other two Modis mentioned by Gandhi.
Judge R P Mogera, who rejected the plea, said Gandhi should have been “more careful with his words” since he was a member of Parliament and the head of the opposition Congress party when he made the comments, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.
A stay of Gandhi’s conviction would have opened up a path to reinstate his parliamentary seat. But he can still seek to stay the conviction in a higher court.
Gandhi will soon challenge the court’s decision in a higher court, party spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi told reporters. “We are confident that superior courts … will set right these legal errors,” he said.
Under Indian law, a criminal conviction and prison sentence of two years or more are grounds for expulsion from Parliament. Gandhi was immediately disqualified after the ruling in March, dealing a huge blow to the Congress party ahead of general elections next year.
Gandhi risks losing his eligibility to run in elections for the next eight years if a court doesn’t overturn his conviction and two-year sentence.
The prosecution of Gandhi, the great-grandson of India’s first prime minister and scion of the dynastic Congress party, was widely condemned by opponents of Modi as the latest assault against democracy and free speech by a government seeking to crush dissent. The speed of his removal from Parliament shocked Indian politics.