Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi said on Saturday he had been disqualified from parliament because he has been asking Prime Minister Narendra Modi tough questions about his relationship with Gautam Adani, founder of the Adani conglomerate.
Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party responded saying Gandhi had been punished under the law for a defamatory comment he made in 2019 and it had nothing to do with the Adani issue.
Gandhi, a former president of India’s main opposition Congress party who is still its main leader, lost his parliamentary seat on Friday, a day after a court in the western state of Gujarat convicted him in a defamation case and sentenced him to two years in jail.
The court granted him bail and suspended his jail sentence for 30 days, allowing him to appeal.
The defamation case was filed in connection with comments Gandhi made in a speech that many deemed insulting to Modi. Gandhi's party and its allies have criticised the court ruling as politically motivated.
"I have been disqualified because the prime minister is scared of my next speech, he is scared of the next speech that is going to come on Adani,” Gandhi told a news conference at the Congress party headquarters in New Delhi.
"They don’t want that speech to be in parliament, that’s the issue,” Gandhi said in his first public comments since the conviction and disqualification.
Gandhi, 52, the scion of a dynasty that has given India three prime ministers, did not elaborate on why Modi might not like his next speech.
Gandhi's once-dominant Congress controls less than 10% of the elected seats in parliament's lower house and has been decimated by the BJP in two successive general elections, most recently in 2019.
India's next general election is due by mid-2024 and Gandhi has recently been trying to revive the party's fortunes.
"I am not scared of this disqualification ... I will continue to ask the question, 'what is the prime minister’s relationship with Mr Adani?’,” Gandhi said on Saturday.
Modi's rivals say the prime minister and the BJP have longstanding ties with the Adani group, going back nearly two decades when Modi was chief minister of the western state of Gujarat. Gautam Adani is also from Gujarat.
The Congress party has questioned investments made by state-run firms in Adani companies and the handover of the management of six airports to the group in recent years, even though it had no experience in the sector.
The Adani group has denied receiving any special favours from the government and government ministers have dismissed such opposition suggestions as “wild allegations”, saying regulators would look into any wrongdoing.
Congress, and its opposition allies have called for a parliamentary investigation.
"The life of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is an open book of honesty," BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad told a news conference called in response to Gandhi's statements on Saturday.
"We don’t have to defend Adani, BJP never defends Adani, but BJP doesn’t target anyone either," Prasad said, accusing Gandhi of habitually lying.
A former federal minister, Prasad listed international business deals the Adani group had signed when a Congress-led coalition government ruled India from 2004 to 2014 and its investments in Indian states ruled by Congress.
"So how is Adani group investing 650 billion rupees ($7.89 billion) in a state ruled by your party," Prasad asked, referring to an announcement by the conglomerate in October that it would invest in the solar power, cement and airport sectors in the western state of Rajasthan, which is ruled by Congress.
Adani's group is trying to rebuild investor confidence after U.S. short-seller Hindenburg Research accused it of stock manipulation and improper use of tax havens - charges the company has denied.
Hindenburg's Jan. 24 report eroded more than $100 billion in the value of the company's shares.
($1 = 82.3340 Indian rupees)
(Reporting by YP RajeshEditing by Robert Birsel and Frances Kerry)