India dispatch: disqualification of Rahul Gandhi from Parliament after defamation conviction could doom opposition to PM Modi in upcoming elections Dispatches
© India National Congress
India dispatch: disqualification of Rahul Gandhi from Parliament after defamation conviction could doom opposition to PM Modi in upcoming elections

Indian law students are reporting for JURIST on law-related developments in and affecting India. This dispatch is from Samar Veer, a third-year law student at National Law University, Delhi.  

On Friday, in a major jolt to the Indian political landscape, opposition leader Rahul Gandhi of the Indian National Congress (INC) was disqualified from being a Member of Parliament (MP), Lok Sabha (Lower House of the Parliament), after his conviction in a 2019 criminal defamation case by a District Court in Surat, Gujarat on Thursday, 23 March. The Lok Sabha issued a notification Friday to this effect.

The Court of the Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM) at Surat, Gujarat, found the 52 year-old leader of the INC guilty under Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which pertains to criminal defamation.  Justice H.H. Varma sentenced him to imprisonment for the maximum period of two years permitted under Section 500 of the IPC, for alleged insults to the ‘Modi’ surname at a political rally several years ago. The judgment also included a fine of Rs.15,000.

The conviction stems from a complaint filed under the aforementioned sections by Purnesh Modi, a Member of the Gujarat Legislative Assembly belonging to the state’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Purnesh Modi had claimed that the public statements by Rahul Gandhi in 2019, likening all individuals with the “Modi” surname to thieves, constituted an insult to the entire Modi community. Further, the BJP has also expressed its approval of the judgment and the prevalence of the equal application of laws to all.

Rahul Gandhi was a Member of Parliament (MP) from the constituency of Wayanad, in the state of Kerala. Now, with immediate effect, he stands disqualified from holding onto his seat in the Lok Sabha. The disqualification was made under Section 8 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, Sub-Section (3) of which states that a person convicted for a period not less than two years shall be disqualified and may continue to remain disqualified for a further period of six years since their release. This section is read with Article 102(1)(e) of the Constitution of India, which states that MPs disqualified by, or under any law made by Parliament, shall lose their membership.

Rahul Gandhi has already been provided bail/suspension of sentence for 30 days by the CJM. This gives him the opportunity to appeal his conviction to a higher court. If his appeal is not filed in due time, or is rejected, then the Election Commission of India is expected to hold by-elections to his constituency seat and Gandhi would be further barred from contesting elections for six more years even after his sentence ends. Conversely, if his appeal is successful and his conviction (not merely his sentence) is stayed by a higher court, his disqualification may also be reversed (as held previously by the Supreme Court in 2018).

Rahul Gandhi has stated that he had ‘no mala fide intent” while making the statement. However, the time for assessing his intent and merits of his case is now long gone and if more misfortune strikes, the Congress stalwart could be looking at a spell in prison and a lengthy exile from Indian politics.

The conviction of a noted opposition leader from a family of political royals has come at a highly inopportune moment for India’s national opposition. The next elections to the Lok Sabha are scheduled for mid-2024 and the deprivation of a central figure in its leadership (who had also recently made a publicized “official” return to politics) could spell doom for the INC, which has been on the wane for almost a decade in national-level politics. With only a few saving graces in regional elections, the Congress has limped on since its defeat in the face of the BJP’s post-2014 electoral juggernaut.

Parliamentary opposition in India has been lying in tatters for some time, sapped of any unity and ideological spirit. Seeing another leader removed from the drawing board at this moment only makes any possibility of competition to the seemingly unassailable BJP a frail prospect.

With regard to this judgment, a few observations are made. A considerable number of Indian politicians currently face pending criminal charges and allegations, some as extreme as terrorism and incitement to religious violence. However, the speed of investigation in such cases has been remarkably sluggish, and the rates of conviction have been historically low. It is of interest to see how charges of a more serious nature continue to be examined at snails’ pace by investigative agencies and courts, yet a seemingly obscure case regarding a major opposition figure gets processed with relative expediency.

Further, this judgment brings to the fore a peculiarity within the law itself: Section 8 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951. Under Section 8(1), a number of specific offences under various legislations are enumerated, for which an individual may face disqualification from Parliament. However, under Section 8(3), there exists a blanket provision that disqualifies any MP from Parliament immediately if they are found guilty of offences where the quantum of punishment is “not less than two years”. If the legislative intent was to impose a ban on MPs convicted for serious offences warranting not less than two years of punishment, then why make a lengthy list of offences in the previous sub-section which entail disqualification in the first place? This question has been asked in a petition filed before the Supreme Court on Saturday and will hopefully lead to some interesting precedent.

Also noteworthy is the bizarre trajectory of this complaint over the years. The complainant had initially filed a complaint in a trial court at Surat, then after a while approached the Gujarat High Court to seek a stay on their own complaint, which was granted. But more recently, the complainant sought a vacation of the stay he himself had obtained from the High Court. The stay was hence vacated and the matter went back to the CJM, Surat where arguments resumed in February this year. The surprising alacrity shown in the course of this case since then is therefore indeed surprising, especially when the whole procedure behind the initial complaint seems confusing. It also makes one wonder if the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections in 2024 or Gandhi’s recent comeback in mainstream politics have anything to do with the revival of the case against him.

Finally, in a rather ironic twist, it is interesting to note that Rahul Gandhi himself had vehemently objected to the insertion of Sub-Section (4) in Section 8 of the Representation of the People Act that would have provided protection to MPs from immediate disqualification if they were convicted of serious offences. This provision was eventually struck down by the Supreme Court.

The Congress faces an uphill battle in the upcoming elections, and must now grapple with the possibility of losing a major face of its leadership, unless the Supreme Court adjudges the situation favourably. Either way, the course of all this commotion is bound to stoke further tensions between the INC and the BJP, with major implications for all sides in the upcoming 2024 electoral showdown.