Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification as a member of parliament following his conviction in a defamation case has sparked controversy and protests in India. Gandhi, a member of the Congress party and scion of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, was found guilty of defamation for a speech made before the 2019 general election in which he referred to thieves as having the surname Modi, a reference to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. The conviction, which carries a two-year jail sentence, was widely criticised by Congress officials, who described it as politically motivated and part of a wider campaign to target political opponents.
The Representation of the People Act, 1951, which governs elections in India, mandates the disqualification of any politician who is “convicted of any offence and sentenced to imprisonment for not less than two years.” As a result, Rahul Gandhi was automatically disqualified as a legislator following his conviction. However, his party intends to appeal the decision in a higher court, and there is a possibility that his conviction may be suspended or overturned before the next national elections due in 2024. If not, Gandhi will be unable to stand as a candidate due to the law mandating that a convicted legislator cannot contest elections for six years after their jail sentence ends.
The case against Gandhi is part of a wider pattern of the Modi government being accused of using the defamation law to target and silence critics. Critics argue that the law is being used to stifle dissent and curtail free speech, and that it is part of a broader pattern of attacks on democratic institutions and norms in India. The conviction of Gandhi is likely to further fuel these concerns, and to raise questions about the independence of India’s judiciary and the ability of opposition parties to operate freely in the country.
The disqualification of Rahul Gandhi is also likely to have political implications for Congress, which has been struggling to mount an effective challenge to the Modi government. The Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty has played a central role in Indian politics since independence, and Gandhi himself has been seen as a potential future prime minister. However, his disqualification and the ongoing legal challenges facing him and other Congress leaders may weaken the party’s position and make it more difficult for it to mount a credible challenge to the ruling BJP.