The Indian opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, has been expelled from parliament 24 hours after he was convicted of defamation for a remark implying the country’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, was a criminal.
Senior members of Gandhi’s Congress party met on Friday morning to discuss the conviction and his two-year jail sentence when they received news of his expulsion.
Gandhi will not go to jail immediately because the court granted him bail for 30 days to file an appeal against the verdict. If an appeals court sets aside Gandhi’s conviction, he can regain his seat.
The party knew that under Indian law anyone who receives a two-year sentence is automatically disqualified to serve as a legislator. But it assumed that Gandhi, 52, would have time to appeal to a higher court first. Instead, the office of the speaker of the house informed Gandhi that he was disqualified from the date of his conviction.
“I’m stunned by this action and by its rapidity, within 24 hours of the court verdict and while an appeal was known to be in process,” Shashi Tharoor, a senior Congress figure, tweeted. “This is politics with the gloves off and it bodes ill for our democracy.”
The case stemmed from a remark made during the 2019 election campaign in which Gandhi, the leading face of the Congress party, had asked why “all thieves have Modi as [their] common surname”. Modi’s BJP government has been widely accused of using the law to target and silence critics.
Gaurav Gogoi, another prominent Congress figure, told NDTV: “With this action, the BJP has ended up proving Rahul’s point that democracy is sinking under Narendra Modi and this is the final nail in the coffin.”
BJP leaders have denied that the process against Gandhi is politicised. “What’s the problem? The law has taken its course. There is nothing political about it,” Alok Vats, a prominent BJP politician, told local media.
The disqualification means that a byelection will have to be held in Gandhi’s constituency of Wayanad in Kerala, south India. His future political career remains somewhat unclear. Much will hang on the appeal process, which is expected to go all the way to the supreme court.
Knowing that the appeal process will take time, Congress has mobilised its members to come out on to the streets in protest.
Asim Ali, a political researcher, said he was puzzled by the BJP’s focus on Gandhi. “I can’t work out what the strategy is because this may benefit Rahul and the Congress,” Ali said. “They [Congress] will say it shows the BJP is insecure about Rahul and that it merely validates what he has been saying about how this government will not allow any criticism of Modi or itself.”
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a Delhi-based writer and analyst, told Agence France-Presse that the verdict showed the BJP “does not want Rahul Gandhi in parliament”.
He said the disqualification followed a “big storm” of disruptions to parliamentary proceedings by Congress politicians demanding an inquiry into Modi’s relationship with tycoon Gautam Adani.
The two men have been close associates for decades but Adani’s business empire has been subject to renewed scrutiny this year after a US investment firm accused it of “brazen” corporate fraud. Adani has repeatedly denied that his longstanding connection with the prime minister has led to preferential treatment, as has the Indian government.
Until recently Gandhi, a member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has given India three prime ministers, had been lampooned by BJP figures as a “kid” who was “wet behind the ears” but a 2,200-mile march across the country last year appears to have lent some credibility and gravitas to his image.
Outside the party, many Indians will be bewildered to find that Gandhi has been disqualified given that 233 of the 539 MPs elected in the 2019 general election have criminal charges against them – many of them more serious than defamation.
Gandhi’s disqualification has served, at least temporarily, to unite a usually fractious opposition that has been appalled by the news. “The BJP is desperate to silence the voice of the opposition. This is the lowest of the low in the history of parliamentary democracy. Shame on them,” said Derek O’Brien, of the Trinamool Congress party.