Rahul expelled from parliament after conviction

Published March 25, 2023
Rahul Gandhi, a senior leader of India’s main opposition Congress party, waves towards his party supporters as he arrives at the New Delhi airport, after he appeared before a court in Surat in the western state of Gujarat, India, on March 23, 2023. — Reuters
Rahul Gandhi, a senior leader of India’s main opposition Congress party, waves towards his party supporters as he arrives at the New Delhi airport, after he appeared before a court in Surat in the western state of Gujarat, India, on March 23, 2023. — Reuters
The leaders and lawmakers of Congress and other opposition parties march towards India’s presidential palace Rashtrapati Bhawan in New Delhi, on Friday, to protest against the conviction of Rahul Gandhi.—AFP
The leaders and lawmakers of Congress and other opposition parties march towards India’s presidential palace Rashtrapati Bhawan in New Delhi, on Friday, to protest against the conviction of Rahul Gandhi.—AFP

NEW DELHI: Top opposition figure Rahul Gandhi was expelled from India’s parliament on Friday, a day after his defamation conviction for a remark seen as an insult against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Modi’s government has been widely accused of using the law to target and silence critics, and the case in the premier’s home state of Gujarat is one of several lodged against his chief opponent in recent years.

Rahul Gandhi, of the opposition Congress party, was sentenced to two-year imprisonment but walked free on bail after his lawyers vowed to appeal Thursday’s verdict. However, the conviction has ruled him ineligible to continue sitting as a lawmaker in the lower house of parliament, a notice from the chamber’s joint secretary said.

Rahul Gandhi, 52, is the leading face of the Congress party, once the dominant force of Indian politics, but now a shadow of its former self. But he has struggled to challenge the electoral juggernaut of Modi’s party and its nationalist appeals to the country’s Hindu majority.

Thursday’s case stemmed from a remark made during the 2019 election campaign in which Gandhi had asked why “all thieves have Modi as (their) common surname”. His comments were seen as a slur against the prime minister, who went on to win the election in a landslide.

Members of the government also said the remark was a smear against all those sharing the Modi surname, which is associated with the lower rungs of India’s traditional caste hierarchy.

‘Habitual loose cannon’

“Rahul Gandhi is a habitual loose cannon and he thinks he can say anything without ever facing the consequences,” information minister Anurag Thakur told reporters. “Wherever he goes he tries to create a rift between communities.”

Ravi Shankar Prasad, a spokesman for Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), told reporters after Thursday’s verdict that the court had acted with “due judicial process”.

But Nilanjan Mukho­padhyay, a New Delhi-based writer and analyst, said the conviction 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 lawmakers demanding a probe 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.

Congress lawmakers gathered outside parliament on Friday morning to protest Gandhi’s conviction and renew their demand for a probe into the Adani allegations. The lawmakers were taken into custody for defying an ordinance banning demonstrations in the area.

“We have detained over two dozen members of opposition parties,” an officer at New Delhi’s Parliament Street police station said. “They will be released soon.”

Action against critics

Several senior lawmakers have been disqualified from Indian legislatures in the past, including a state chief minister. Indira Gandhi, Rahul’s grandmother, was briefly forced out of the chamber by a court decision in 1977 while she was prime minister.

But legal action has been widely deployed against opposition party figures and institutions seen as critical of the Modi government in recent years.

Gandhi himself faces at least two other defamation cases in the country and a money laundering case that has been snaking its way through India’s glacial legal system for more than a decade.

Federal investigators last month arrested a top member of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) which governs New Delhi on allegations he had corruptly benefitted from reforms to the capital’s liquor licensing rules. The party is seeking to supplant Congress as the main opposition to Modi’s government and its members have decr­ied the arrest as politically motivated.

Also in February, Indian tax authorities raided BBC’s local offices, weeks after the broadcaster aired a documentary on Modi’s conduct during deadly sectarian riots decades ago.

The Editors Guild of India said then that the raids were part of a wider “trend of using government agencies to intimidate or harass press organisations that are critical of government policies”.

Published in Dawn, March 25th, 2023

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