India's Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi speaks at a public meeting amid heavy snowfall as he concludes the 'Bharat Jodo Yatra' march in Srinagar on Jan 30, 2023. (PHOTO / AFP)
AHMEDABAD, India – A court in India found opposition leader Rahul Gandhi guilty of defamation on Thursday for a speech he made in 2019 in which he referred to thieves as having the surname Modi, and sentenced him to two years in prison.
Gandhi, a senior leader of the Congress party and the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, will appeal against the order in a higher court, his party said. The judgment was passed by a court in the city of Surat, located in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state of Gujarat.
An adviser to the federal government, Kanchan Gupta, said Gandhi, a member of the lower house of parliament, could face immediate disqualification as a member of parliament following the conviction in line with a 2013 order of the country's highest court.
In the speech ahead of the last general election in 2019, opposition leader Rahul Gandhi referred to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and two fugitive Indian businessmen, all with the Modi surname, while talking about alleged high-level corruption in the country
"The court has found Rahul Gandhi’s comment to be defamatory," said Ketan Reshamwala, an advocate for complainant Purnesh Modi, a Gujarat lawmaker from the prime minister's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). "He has been sentenced to two years in jail."
Gandhi was present at the Surat court, which gave him bail immediately and suspended the sentence for a month.
In the speech ahead of the last general election in 2019, Gandhi referred to the prime minister and two fugitive Indian businessmen, all with the Modi surname, while talking about alleged high-level corruption in the country.
On Thursday, Gandhi told the court that his comment was not against any community.
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Gandhi's party said the case against him was brought by a "cowardly and dictatorial" BJP government because he was "exposing their dark deeds".
"The Modi government is a victim of political bankruptcy", Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge said on Twitter. "We will appeal in the higher court."
Gupta, a senior adviser to the federal Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, said that Gandhi faced immediate disqualification as a lawmaker.
"In a democracy, nobody, absolutely nobody is above the law," Gupta said on Twitter. "All are equal. The law, therefore, equally applies to Rahul Gandhi."
Gandhi, one of Modi's main rivals ahead of the 2024 general election, won support from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that rules Delhi and two of whose top leaders are in jail on what they call trumped-up charges
Congress spokesperson Supriya Shrinate said the party had "all legal recourse available to us and we will use them".
"Hopefully, the law of the land will prevail," she said.
Gandhi, one of Modi's main rivals ahead of the 2024 general election, won support from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that rules Delhi and two of whose top leaders are in jail on what they call trumped-up charges.
"A conspiracy is being hatched to eliminate non-BJP leaders and parties by prosecuting them," AAP chief and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal wrote on Twitter.
"We have differences with the Congress, but it is not right to implicate Rahul Gandhi in a defamation case like this. It is the job of the public and the opposition to ask questions. We respect the court but disagree with the decision."
Gandhi's once-dominant Congress controls less than 10 percent of the elected seats in parliament's lower house and lost badly to the BJP in the last two general elections.
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Modi remains India's most popular politician by a substantial margin and is widely expected to win a third victory at the next general election in 2024.