AHMEDABAD, India, March 23 (Reuters) – An Indian court sentenced opposition leader Rahul Gandhi to two years in prison on defamation charges in 2019 for referring to thieves surnamed Modi.
Gandhi will appeal the order in the High Court, but it is a major blow to his Congress party ahead of the 2024 general elections. The verdict was delivered by a court in Surat, located in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat.
Gandhi, 52, of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, appeared in a Surat court, which granted him immediate bail and suspended the sentence for a month.
Central government counsel Kanjan Gupta said Gandhi, a member of the lower house of parliament, would face immediate disqualification from the legislature following the conviction, as per a 2013 order by the country’s Supreme Court.
The disqualification of Gandhi, a former Congress president and its star campaigner, will complicate the party’s chances in the next general election, where the BJP is widely expected to win a third term.
“The court finds that Rahul Gandhi’s comment is defamatory,” said Ketan Reshamwala, lawyer for complainant Purnesh Modi, a Gujarat legislator from the prime minister’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “He has been sentenced to two years in prison.”
In a speech before the last general election in 2019, Gandhi mentioned the prime minister and two fugitive Indian businessmen, all surnamed Modi, when talking about high-level corruption in the country.
On Thursday, Gandhi told the court that his comment was not against any community.
Gandhi’s party said he was being sued by the “cowardly and dictatorial” BJP government because he had “exposed their dark deeds”.
“The Modi government is suffering from political bankruptcy,” Congress president Mallikarjuna Kharge tweeted. “We will appeal to the High Court.”
Congress spokesperson Supriya Shrinath said, “We have all legal resources and we will use them.”
“I hope the law of the land prevails,” he said.
Gandhi had the support of Delhi’s ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and two of its key leaders are in jail on so-called trumped-up charges.
Aam Aadmi Party leader and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal tweeted: “There is a conspiracy to eliminate non-BJP leaders and parties by prosecuting them.”
“We have our differences with the Congress, but it is not right to implicate Rahul Gandhi in a defamation case. It is the job of the public and the opposition to ask questions. We respect the court but disagree with the verdict.”
Gandhi’s once-dominant Congress has less than 10% of the seats elected in the lower house of parliament and has lost badly to the BJP in the last two general elections.
Modi remains India’s most popular politician by a considerable margin and is widely expected to secure a third victory in next year’s election.
Reporting by Sumit Khanna in Ahmedabad, Shilpa Jamkandikar in Mumbai and Urban Chaturvedi in New Delhi; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, William McLean
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