In what might prove to be a major political upheaval ahead of national elections in 2024, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has been found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison today in a 2019 criminal defamation case by a court in Gujarat's Surat.
However, he was granted bail and his sentence was suspended for 30 days to let him appeal the decision.
The case involved Gandhi's remarks about Prime Minister Narendra Modi's surname. The complaint was filed against Gandhi by BJP MLA and former Gujarat minister Purnesh Modi for saying "How come all thieves have the common surname Modi?"
The Lok Sabha MP from Wayanad made the remarks while addressing a rally in Karnataka ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, targeting PM Modi over his last name which he shares with fugitive businessmen Nirav Modi and Lalit Modi.
In his first comment after the verdict, Gandhi quoted Mahatma Gandhi, tweeting in Hindi, "My religion is based on truth and non-violence. Truth is my God, non-violence the means to get it."
His sister and Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra tweeted, "Scared rulers are pulling out all stops to suppress the voice of @RahulGandhi ji. My brother has never been afraid, nor will he ever be. He will continue to speak the truth. Will continue to raise the voice of the people of the country. The power of truth and the love of crores of countrymen are with him."
Gandhi arrived in Surat earlier in the day for the verdict and was received by top leaders of the Congress's Gujarat unit. He returned to Delhi in the evening.
Gandhi had been granted bail and his sentence suspended for 30 days to allow him time to appeal. The court's order puts him at risk of disqualification as a member of parliament under the law.
Section 8(3) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, says that the moment a member of parliament is convicted of any offence and sentenced for at least two years, she or he attracts disqualification. A 2013 verdict from the Supreme Court in the Lily Thomas versus Union of India case, said, "any MP, MLA or MLC who is convicted of a crime and given a minimum of 2 years' jail loses membership of the House with immediate effect".
Under the circumstances, the Lok Sabha Secretariat can disqualify Rahul Gandhi on basis of the Surat court order and declare his Wayanad constituency vacant, legal experts said. Certain Congress leaders have conceded that Gandhi might lose his seat, and the party has said that he will not sit in Parliament till his appeal is heard.
Supporters and members of the party turned out at various spots in Surat as a show of strength and support for Gandhi, with posters extolling him as 'Sher-e-Hindustan' (Lion of India) and placards declaring that the "Congress will not bow before the dictatorship of the BJP" on display.
Following the conviction, Gandhi earned a rare show of support from Delhi Chief Minister and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) boss Arvind Kejriwal, who tweeted he "disagreed" with the verdict.
"A conspiracy is being hatched to eliminate non-BJP leaders and parties by prosecuting them. 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," he wrote.
The court of Chief Judicial Magistrate HH Varma had last week concluded hearing final arguments from both sides and said it was ready to pronounce its judgment in the four-year-old defamation case, Gandhi's lawyer Kirit Panwala had said.
Gandhi had last appeared before the Surat court in the case, in October 2021 to record his statement.
Gandhi's lawyer has argued the court proceedings were "flawed" from the beginning. The lawyer also argued that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and not MLA Purnesh Modi, should have been the complainant in the case because the PM was the main target of Gandhi's speech.
If the verdict is not cancelled by any higher court, Rahul Gandhi will also not be allowed to contest elections for the next eight years.