Indian Opposition Leader Rahul Gandhi Sentenced to Two Years for Defaming Prime Minister Narendra Modi

NEW DELHI, INDIA - FEBRUARY 9: Congress MP Rahul Gandhi arrives at the parliament house co
Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty

A court in the Indian city of Surat sentenced opposition leader Rahul Gandhi to two years in prison on Thursday for defaming Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a 2019 speech. Gandhi could lose his seat in Congress over the conviction, seriously hindering his party’s hopes for beating Modi’s BJP party in the 2024 election.

Gandhi, 52, is the leader of the Indian National Congress (INC) party, commonly known as simply the “Congress” party. He is not technically the president of the party – that position is held by 80-year-old Shri Mallikarjun Kharge, who replaced Rahul Gandhi’s mother Sonia as titular executive in October, becoming the first INC president in over two decades who was not a member of Gandhi family. Rahul Gandhi remains the focus of attention in the INC, including a good deal of hostile attention from the government.

INC members protested across India last summer when Rahul and Sonia Gandhi were investigated for allegations of corruption. The two are currently out on bail from the corruption case, and Rahul is actually on bail from five other investigations, all of them defamation charges stemming from his propensity to accuse political opponents of criminal activity. He is under investigation, but not yet facing charges, for several other defamation charges.

Gandhi dismisses all of these charges and allegations as the work of politicized prosecutions seeking to neutralize the threat he poses to Modi, BJP, and the most frequent target of his scathing remarks, a Hindu nationalist paramilitary organization aligned with BJP called Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Gandhi has also expressed fears that his adversaries will try to assassinate him.

On Thursday, Gandhi was found guilty of defaming Modi by giving a speech in 2019 during which he remarked: “Why do all these thieves have Modi as their surname? Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi, Narendra Modi.”

The first two Modis he named were a diamond tycoon on the lam for fraud, embezzlement, and money laundering charges, and the founder of the Indian Premier League of cricket, who was banned from the sport for life in 2015 for “serious misconduct and indiscipline.” 

India’s Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi (2L) arrives at the district court in Surat on March 23, 2023. An Indian court on March 23 found opposition leader Rahul Gandhi guilty of defamation for a 2019 campaign trail remark implying that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was a criminal. (AFP via Getty)

Modi is a fairly common surname in parts of India, derived from the name of a nomadic tribe that settled in India’s Gujarat province in the 15th Century. Narendra Modi is not related to either Nirav or Lalit Modi, although INC has pointed out that the prime minister personally knows both of the high-profile fugitive businessmen.

A BJP official in Gujarat, Narendra Modi’s home state, filed a complaint against Rahul Gandhi for defaming not only the prime minister but “the entire Modi community.”

Gandhi insisted he was attempting to highlight corruption and Narendra Modi’s connections to the fugitives who happen to share his last name, not deliver an ethnic slur. INC said the Modi government was “cowardly and dictatorial” for pursuing charges against one of its most prominent leaders, and possibly its prime ministerial candidate for 2024.

The court in Gujarat’s city of Surat rejected these defenses and sentenced Gandhi to two years in jail for defamation. Under India’s 1951 Representation of the People Act, any lawmaker convicted of an offense and sentenced to two or more years in prison is immediately disqualified from holding office for six years after their sentence ends. 

Gandhi will have to seek an order from a higher court to override his potential disqualification. The Surat court suspended his sentence for one month and granted him bail, which could be extended, but he would still be prohibited from running for new offices unless he obtains a stay on his conviction – and even if he gets one, voters in 2024 might be leery of supporting a prime ministerial candidate who could be disqualified from holding office at any moment when a frozen defamation conviction suddenly sprang to life.

Security Personnel detained congress workers while protesting after Delhi Police reached at Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s residence to ask questions regarding his comments during Bharat Jodo Yatra, on March 19, 2023 in New Delhi, India. (Salman Ali/Hindustan Times via Getty)

“The Modi government is a victim of political bankruptcy. We will appeal in the higher court,” INC president Kharge said when the verdict was handed down.

“A conspiracy is being hatched to eliminate non-BJP leaders and parties by prosecuting them. We have differences with the Congress, but it is not right to implicate Rahul Gandhi in a defamation case like this,” said Arvind Kejriwal, leader of the rival Aam Aadami party. Aam Aadami claims that two of its own leaders have been jailed on politicized charges.


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