Former Congress party chairman Rahul Gandhi was barred from parliament on Friday, a day after being convicted in a defamation case for a comment considered an affront to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Lok Sabha Secretariat also declared his Wayanad seat in Kerala vacant. The Election Commission may now call a special election for the position. Mr. Gandhi will be given a month to leave his government residence.
The Congress labelled it a “plot” to suppress the leader, who has been relentless in his criticism of Prime Minister Modi and has been the de facto leader of the major opposition party for almost a decade.
On Thursday, the 52-year-old was found guilty and sentenced to two years in jail in Gujarat for a 2019 speech in which he connected PM Modi’s surname to that of two fugitive businessmen, observing how the “thieves” had the same surname.
In addition, the court gave him bail and postponed his sentence for 30 days to enable him to appeal to a higher court. Yet, under the legislation, any MP guilty of a crime and sentenced to at least two years in prison is ineligible.
Mr Gandhi, who entered parliament in 2004 and comes from a family of three Prime Ministers, marched across India this year to resurrect the Congress Party’s electoral fortunes and galvanise its supporters.
The once-dominant Congress now controls less than a tenth of the elected seats in parliament’s lower house after being annihilated by the BJP in two consecutive general elections, the most recent of which was held in 2019 under Mr Gandhi’s leadership.
“Rahul Gandhi’s Lok Sabha membership has been terminated. He is constantly fighting for you and this country, from the streets to the Parliament, trying everything possible to save democracy. Despite every conspiracy, he will continue this fight at all costs and will take just action in this matter. The fight continues,” Congress said in a tweet in Hindi.
The party’s social media profile picture was also changed to a vignette of Rahul Gandhi with the words ‘Daro Mat’ (Don’t Be Scared).
Manish Tewari, a senior Congress politician, termed the judgement “erroneous.” “The Lok Sabha secretariat has no authority to dismiss an MP. The president must do so after consulting with the Election Commission,” he told NDTV. It was described as “dictatorship” by Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot.
Another prominent Congressman, Shashi Tharoor, was “stunned” by the action.
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. This is politics with the gloves off and it bodes ill for our democracy. pic.twitter.com/IhUVHN3b1F
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) March 24, 2023
Some opposition leaders have expressed dismay and blamed the decision on the BJP.
The BJP claims the conviction is the result of an impartial court, and party president JP Nadda accuses Mr. Gandhi of disrespecting the Other Backward Class (OBC) population, which is a significant voting bloc for the party.
Rahul Gandhi’s team has said that they would appeal the judgement to a higher court. If the ruling is not overturned, Mr. Gandhi would be barred from running for office for the next eight years.
“Rahul Gandhi will not stop from asking difficult questions and exposing crony capitalism and this government’s active role in promoting and protecting it,” Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera said.
Numerous senior legislators have previously been barred from serving in legislatures. Rahul Gandhi’s grandmother, Indira Gandhi, was momentarily pushed out of the chamber by a 1977 court judgement when she was Prime Minister.
Still, opposition parties say that legal actions against leaders of opposition parties and institutions that are critical of the Modi government have gotten a lot worse in recent years.
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