NEW DELHI (AP) — A court on Monday suspended a two-year prison sentence for Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi as he appeals his criminal conviction for mocking the prime minister’s surname which resulted in his expulsion from Parliament, dealing a huge blow to his Congress party ahead of general elections next year.
Gandhi, a fierce critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his main challenger in the 2024 polls, was ousted after a court sentenced him to two years in prison for defamation for a comment made in a 2019 election speech.
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.
Gandhi appeared in a court in the western state of Gujarat on Monday to file an appeal and was granted bail for the duration of the appeal process. He was granted bail for 30 days to file an appeal when he was convicted last month. The court set the next hearing for April 13.
“In this struggle, truth is my weapon and truth is my support,” Gandhi tweeted after Monday’s hearing. He waved to supporters and Congress party members who gathered outside the court.
A man who shares the prime minister’s surname, Modi, which is common in his home state of Gujarat, accused Gandhi of defamation over a 2019 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.
Gandhi was convicted on March 23 and expelled from Parliament the next day, sparking opposition lawmakers to rally to his defense and call his expulsion a new low for India’s constitutional democracy.
Under Indian law, a criminal conviction with a prison sentence of two years or more is grounds for expulsion from Parliament. If Gandhi’s conviction is not suspended or overturned by a higher court, he could face prison and will likely not be able to contest the national elections in 2024.
Babu Mangukiya, a lawyer from Gandhi’s legal team, said he will remain disqualified from Parliament until a court suspends his conviction, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.
Legal experts say Gandhi’s case is unusual, especially since defamation convictions remain rare.
“It’s something we almost never see — to have a conviction in a defamation case and even more, a maximum sentence (of two years) for what appears to be an innocuous remark,” senior advocate Gopal Shankar Narayan said, adding that politicians are usually given more leeway when it comes to free speech. “In most civilized countries, defamation is not criminal — you can sue for damages and get compensation, but it’s not a criminal conviction.”
India, with nearly 1.4 billion people, is the world’s largest democracy. Modi’s critics say its democracy has been in retreat since he came to power in 2014. They accuse his government of pursuing a Hindu nationalist agenda. The government denies that, saying its policies benefit all Indians.
Gandhi’s family has produced three prime ministers. Two of them — his grandmother, Indira Gandhi, and father, Rajiv Gandhi — were assassinated.
Even though Gandhi is seen as the main challenger to the Modi government, his Indian National Congress party has suffered humiliating defeats in the last two general elections. In a bid to woo voters, Gandhi has railed against Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party in recent months, accusing them of corruption and of tarnishing India’s democratic credentials.