India's former opposition leader loses parliament seat over conviction in a defamation case

Rahul Gandhi in a press conference in March 2023. Screenshot from a YouTube video by Rahul Gandhi channel.

Rahul Gandhi in a press conference in March 2023. Screenshot from a YouTube video by Rahul Gandhi's channel. Fair use.

Rahul Gandhi, the former leader of the opposition Indian National Congress party (INC) has been stripped of his membership in the Lok Sabha, India's Lower chamber of parliament after being convicted of defamation. Gandhi is accused of insulting the surname “Modi,” also held by the current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Under the Representation of the People Act of 1951, which regulates the electoral process for the Indian Parliament, an individual may be disqualified from the Lok Sabha if they receive a prison sentence of two years or more. On Thursday, March 23, 2023, a court in western India convicted opposition leader Rahul Gandhi of defamation for a speech he delivered in 2019, resulting in a two-year jail term. He was also granted a 30-day bail.

Journalist Nistula Hebbar tweeted:

The charges were related to comments Gandhi gave during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, where he questioned the prevalence of the surname Modi among alleged thieves. The Modi surname is associated with the Other Backward Class (OBC) community, who filed a case against Gandhi's remarks and sought legal action.

In India, OBC is a category of socially and educationally disadvantaged communities that receive preferential treatment in education and employment. The Modi surname is common among the OBC communities in Gujarat and other Western states. However, some political analysts and political leaders from the opposition called this a witchhunt against Gandhi, who is considered a direct rival to Modi in the 2024 elections, despite his lack of visible popular support.

The community group that approached the courts noted in a statement that during his campaign for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Gandhi made disparaging remarks about an OBC community, and this is not the first time he has done so. There have been several instances where legal action has been taken against Gandhi for his statements.

Following his disqualification from the Lok Sabha, Rahul Gandhi held his first press conference where he accused the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Central government of being afraid to answer his questions about the Adani group, an Indian multinational conglomerate. The Adani Group has been accused of stock manipulation and accounting fraud, and Gandhi raised concerns about the Indian government's role in the case.

Rahul Gandhi and the defamation case

From December 2017 to July 2019, Rahul Gandhi held the position of President of the Indian National Congress, but he resigned as the opposition leader after an electoral defeat. He hails from a distinguished lineage of Indian politicians and statesmen — his father was the former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was the son of Indira Gandhi, another former prime minister. His great-grandfather was Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India and a key figure in the Indian nationalist movement during the 1930s and 1940s. Nehru played a vital role in India's independence from British colonialism.

Although the Indian National Congress (INC) was once a dominant political party in India before the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took control in 2014, it was decimated in the 2019 elections, winning less than 10 percent of seats (out of a total of 545) in the lower house. Nonetheless, it still commands a sizable vote bank of 20 percent, which is the second-largest after the BJP's 38 percent.

Following a successful cross-country “Unite India Rally” against hatred and division that spanned over 3,500 km (2,200 miles) and lasted three months, Gandhi was primed for a comeback into national politics as a rival to Modi. After Modi came to power in 2014, extreme pro-Hindu narratives and Islamophobia became rampant in political discourses, anti-Muslim violence began escalating in India with state-sponsored attacks on Muslims and open calls for genocide becoming increasingly common.

While campaigning for the Lok Sabha elections in 2019, Rahul Gandhi made a remark during a rally, stating, “How come all the thieves have Modi as a common surname?” Purnish Modi, a former Gujarat minister and BJP member of parliament, filed a defamation case against Gandhi, alleging that the comment about the Modi surname had defamed all individuals bearing that name, including the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Widespread condemnations

Rahul Gandhi's disqualification from Lok Sabha gathered much criticism from all quarters.

Expat Indian scholar Ashok Swain mentioned:

Journalist and author Sagarika Ghose stressed:

Renuka Chowdhury, a leader of the Congress party, raised concerns about the speed at which the authorities moved to disqualify Rahul Gandhi. She vowed to file a defamation case against PM Modi to see how fast the courts act.

Priyanka Gandhi, INC leader and the sister of Rahul Gandhi, said at an event:

Cartoonist Satish Acharya quipped:

Some, like journalist Sanjukta Basu, are changing their profile name, adding “disqualified citizen” to show solidarity with Gandhi:

Starting Monday, March 27, 2023, the Indian National Congress (INC) is preparing for a large-scale protest and is seeking the backing of other opposition parties across the country.

Modi’s rise and consolidation of power

Since Modi assumed power in 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been a dominating political force at the national level, using legal democratic methods to expand its influence over the legislature, media and judiciary. As a result, the opposition Congress party and other regional parties have faced legal challenges, investigations, and a decline in vote share. At the same time, Modi’s right-wing Hindu nationalistic rhetoric has boosted his approval rating to over 70 percent, while the Congress party has failed to make significant inroads into Modi's stronghold.

As Gandhi gained popular support through the surprise Bharat Jodho Yatra (Unity March), and increased his scrutiny of Modi’s relationship with Indian tycoon Gautam Adani, political analysts suggest BJP is willing to go after smaller political figures in its efforts to consolidate power in preparation for the 2024 general elections, which would be Modi’s third-term as the Prime Minister if his party secures a majority.

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