Rahul Gandhi, the leader of India’s Congress party, has been disqualified from sitting as an MP, a day after being found guilty of defamation and sentenced to two years in prison.
Gandhi, 52, was convicted on Thursday over a 2019 speech in which he referred to many thieves having the same surname as Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The court granted him bail immediately and suspended his sentence for a month.
“Shri Rahul Gandhi, member of Lok Sabha representing the Wayanad Parliamentary constituency of Kerala, stands disqualified from the membership of Lok Sabha from the date of his conviction,” a parliamentary notification said on Friday.
Gandhi's speech created a furore and a defamation case was filed against him by a legislator from Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in the Prime Minister's home state of Gujarat.
The complainant, Purnesh Modi, said the remarks defamed all Modis. The surname is common in the western state.
Reacting to his disqualification, Gandhi said on Twitter: “I am fighting for the voice of India. I am ready to pay any cost.”
Congress said his disqualification was part of a “systematic, repetitive emasculation of democratic institutions and strangulation of democracy” by the BJP.
“He has been speaking fearlessly on social, economic and political issues without any fear or inhibition, frankly and candidly and he is paying a price for it,” said party spokesman Abhishek Singhvi. “This government is rattled … it is trying new techniques for throttling his voice and gagging him.”
Congress allies and other opposition parties also criticised the disqualification.
“The BJP are desperate to silence the voice of the opposition. We know they would go to all kinds of lows but this is the lowest of the low … terrible … lowest in the history of parliamentary democracy,” Derek O’Brien of Trinamool Congress said.
Manoj Jha, an MP from the Rashtriya Janata Dal party, said: “This is shameful and unfortunate, and nothing can be a bigger blot in the history of parliamentary democracy.”
India's Representation of the People Act allows parliament to disqualify a member sentenced to two years or more in prison for any offence.
Congress member Rasheed Masood was the first MP to be disqualified after a Delhi court sentenced him to four years in 2013 over a scandal involving admissions to medical courses.
Prominent politicians such as Lalu Prasad Yadav, leader of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, and the late J Jayalalithaa, a former chief minister of Tamil Nadu state, have been disqualified after being convicted in various offences.
Mr Modi's party denied it was targeting Gandhi, describing him as a “habitual loose cannon” who repeatedly used “lies, and offensive language” without regard for the consequences.
“It is a normal legal process, neither BJP nor the government has any role to play in it,” BJP spokesman R P Singh told The National. “Dynasts don’t believe in institutions and he is a dynast. When he said so with complete understanding, he has to bear it or he could apologise to the court.”
Gandhi has been a vocal critic of the Prime Minister and his policies and has accused him of helping certain corporate groups that are believed to be close to the BJP.
He has been under fire from the ruling party over his recent remarks at the British parliament, where he accused Mr Modi of stifling the parliamentary opposition and claimed Indian democracy was under attack.
The BJP demanded that Gandhi tender an apology in parliament over the “anti-India” comments.
The Congress leader recently completed a march of nearly 4,000km across the country, called Bharat Jodo Yatra — Unite India March — in what was seen as an attempt to revive the party's fortunes after back-to-back defeats in parliamentary elections.
Shahid Siddique, a political analyst, said Gandhi’s disqualification lent credence to his allegations against the Modi government and would boost his image and that of Congress.
“The way the government pounced without any chance to Mr Gandhi, it seems like it was a part of a planned strategy,” Mr Siddique told The National.
“This might help revive the party as in the mind of the people it will go as an effort to silence Gandhi and could generate people's support and sympathy for him. He is not that effective but for some reason, BJP seems more rattled, which will strengthen his position,” he said.
Congress leaders including Gandhi's mother Sonia, his sister Priyanka and party president Mallikarjun Kharge held a meeting to discuss their response to the disqualification.