Former Indian National Congress president Rahul Gandhi has been disqualified as a member of parliament, a day after being convicted in a defamation case and sentenced to two years in jail.
“Rahul Gandhi… stands disqualified from the member of Lok Sabha from the date of his conviction,” a notice issued by the Lok Sabha Secretariat said today.
Gandhi, in his first reaction after he was disqualified as a member of parliament today, said he is "ready to pay any cost". The move came a day after his conviction in a defamation case for a remark seen as an insult to Prime Minister Narendra Modi."I am fighting for the voice of India. I am ready to pay any price," he tweeted in Hindi.
Gandhi, 52, was found guilty for a speech ahead of the 2019 general election in which he referred to thieves as having the surname Modi. He will appeal in a higher court, his party said.
Congress members held protests across the country against Gandhi’s conviction and two-year-old jail sentence. Leaders of several opposition parties, including some who don't share friendly relations with the INC, expressed shock and decried the "murder of democracy".
Congress officials have described the court order as politically motivated and accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of targeting political opponents. They announced plans for a nationwide "save democracy" movement to protest against the disqualification.
"We discussed political strategy on Rahul Gandhi's disqualification. Abhishek Manu Singhvi briefed the members on the legal strategy. We have planned protests across the country in the coming days," said senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh at a press briefing after a strategy meeting attended by top Congress leaders, including party chief Mallikarjun Kharge, former Congress president Sonia Gandhi and former Union Minister P Chidambaram.
"I'm stunned by this action and by its rapidity, within 24 hours of the court verdict and while an appeal was known to be in process. This is politics with the gloves off and it bodes ill for our democracy," tweeted Thiruvananthapuram MP and maverick Congress party member Shashi Tharoor.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said Opposition leaders have become the prime target of the BJP in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's "new India".
Aam Aadmi Party chief and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, whose party has been embroiled in its own see-saw battle with the Union government, condemned the verdict and rapid disqualification order.
"They want to create such an environment that there is only one party and only one leader left in the country. They want all the other leaders and parties to be finished. This is called dictatorship," Kejriwal said.
"But today's government under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is more dangerous than British rule. This is not just a Congress fight. This is a fight to save the country," added the Delhi Chief Minister.
Modi’s government has been widely accused of using the defamation law to target and silence critics. The case in Gujarat is one of several lodged against Gandhi, Modi’s chief opponent.
The Representation of the People Act, 1951, the law that governs elections in India, mandates the disqualification of any politician who is “convicted of any offence and sentenced to imprisonment for not less than two years”.
Gandhi was yesterday found guilty of defamation by a Surat District Court. The disqualification comes into effect from the date of conviction.
Kapil Sibal, a top Indian lawyer and former federal law minister, said in an interview that while Gandhi stood automatically disqualified as a legislator, his two-year jail sentence itself was “bizarre”.
“If it (the court) only suspends the sentence, that is not enough. There has to be a suspension or stay of conviction. He (Gandhi) can stay on as a member of parliament only if there is a stay on the conviction,” said Sibal, who is also a former member of the Congress party.
Gandhi now faces the risk of not being able to contest national elections due in 2024 if his conviction is not suspended or overturned by a higher court before the elections.
The law also mandates that a convicted legislator cannot contest elections for six years after the end of their jail sentence.
Gandhi represents the Wayanad constituency in the southern state of Kerala.