The former leader of India’s main opposition political party has been disqualified as a lawmaker, a day after he was handed a two-year jail sentence for defamation, in a ruling his supporters say is politically motivated.
India’s lower house, the Lok Sabha, said in a statement that Rahul Gandhi “stands disqualified from the membership,” citing his recent conviction.
It is the second setback in as many days for India’s opposition Congress party and could neuter one of the few figures that has the kind of star power and name recognition to challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
On Thursday, Gandhi was found guilty of defamation by a court in western state of Gujarat for a speech he made in 2019, in which he referred to thieves as having the same surname as Modi.
The 52-year-old politician was granted bail, according to his Congress party, which decried his conviction, accusing Modi of using the courts to silence his critics.
“Everyone knows that Rahul Gandhi… is raising his voice against the dictator. He’s showing the courage to call out what is wrong,” the party said in a statement on Thursday.
The conviction opened up an opportunity for his opponents, particularly within Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Under Indian law, a member of parliament can be disqualified for offenses such as “promoting enmity between two groups, bribery and undue influence or personation at an election.”
If a lawmaker is convicted for any other offense and sentenced to a period of two years or more, they can also be disqualified.
“He (Gandhi) stands convicted and as per law conviction leads to automatic disqualification. The Congress knows this,” BJP spokesperson Amit Malviya told CNN affiliate News18.
Following his disqualification Gandhi will be unable to contest future elections unless his sentence is either stayed or he is acquitted.
“We will fight this battle both legally and politically. We will not be intimidated or silenced,” senior Congress politician Jairam Ramesh tweeted.
Indian parties from across the political spectrum have condemned Gandhi’s disqualification as an MP.
Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal state and chairperson of the All India Trinamool Congress, tweeted, “In PM Modi’s New India, opposition leaders have become the prime target of BJP! While BJP leaders with criminal antecedents are inducted into the cabinet, Opposition leaders are disqualified for their speeches. Today, we have witnessed a new low for our constitutional democracy.”
MP Derek O’Brien, also of the All India Trinamool Congress, posted a video on Twitter, saying, “The BJP is desperate to silence the voice of the opposition… We know they will go to all kinds of lows but this is the low of the low… BJP, shame on you.”
Manoj Jha, an MP with the regional Rashtriya Janata Dal party, wrote on Twitter that democracy had been “declared dead.”
“How bizarre and obnoxious. Shamelessness has got a new address. Yet don’t say democracy is dead in India. Parties in opposition must see that it is not about ‘elections’ alone but the fight must be to resuscitate democracy…” Jha wrote in a separate tweet.
Shashi Tharoor, an MP from Gandhi’s party, expressed his shock on Twitter, saying: “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.”
Gandhi stood against Modi to contest the country’s top seat in the 2019 general election but he lost heavily.
He subsequently stepped down as Congress’ president but remains an influential figure within the party.
He is the son of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
His grandmother Indira was India’s first female leader, and his great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, was the country’s founding Prime Minister.
His grandmother was assassinated while in office, and his father was killed by a bomb blast while he was campaigning in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.