India’s Rahul Gandhi appeals defamation conviction

Published April 3, 2023
Rahul Gandhi, a senior leader of India’s main opposition Congress party, arrives with his sister and a leader of the party Priyanka Gandhi Vadra at a court in Surat in the western state of Gujarat, India, April 3. — Reuters
Rahul Gandhi, a senior leader of India’s main opposition Congress party, arrives with his sister and a leader of the party Priyanka Gandhi Vadra at a court in Surat in the western state of Gujarat, India, April 3. — Reuters

Top Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi appealed on Monday against the defamation conviction that resulted in his expulsion from parliament two weeks ago.

Gandhi, 52, who was sentenced to two years imprisonment in a case about remarks he made in 2019 seen as insulting to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and those sharing his surname, is looking to overturn the conviction before elections due next year.

The sentence also renders Gandhi ineligible to stand in the polls, which the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is widely expected to win convincingly.

Modi’s government is widely accused of using the defamation law to 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.

“In this struggle, truth is my weapon, and truth is my support!” Gandhi tweeted after he left the crowded court complex in Surat city in the western state of Gujarat, waving to supporters and Congress members who had gathered in large numbers.

Gandhi was accompanied by his younger sister, Priyanka Vadra, en route from the airport to the court in a bus with large windows through which he waved at supporters.

The first hearing will be on April 13, Hiral Panwala, a member of Gandhi’s legal team, told Reuters.

Critics say the defamation conviction came after Gandhi repeatedly raised the issue of Modi’s relationship with business tycoon Gautam Adani both inside and outside parliament.

The two men — both Gujaratis — 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, which it denies.

Gandhi is the leading face of the opposition Congress party, once the dominant force in Indian politics but now a shadow of its former self.

He is the scion of India’s premier political dynasty and the son, grandson and great-grandson of former prime ministers, beginning with independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru.

But he has struggled to challenge the electoral juggernaut of Modi’s party and its nationalist appeals to the country’s Hindu majority.

Conviction

Gandhi’s conviction hinged on a comment he made while campaigning ahead of the last general election, when he referred to two fugitive businessmen, both surnamed Modi, and asked: “How come all thieves have the name Modi?”

Prime Minister Modi and his BJP swept back to power in that election. Gandhi’s Congress recorded its worst performance ever, winning 52 seats in the 542-member lower house of parliament.

A magistrate’s court in Surat last month ruled that Gandhi had defamed everyone with the surname Modi but his lawyer said Gandhi had been referring to Prime Minister Modi and the two businessmen while talking about accusations of high-level corruption.

“The 2019 speech was not aimed at defaming millions of people having the surname Modi,” Panwala told Reuters.

Gandhi will not have to attend the April 13 hearing.

Two more defamation cases have been filed elsewhere against Gandhi for the same comment and he is due to appear in court in one of them in the eastern city of Patna on April 12.

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