In a significant development for the Congress, the Supreme Court on August 4 stayed Rahul Gandhi’s conviction in the Modi surname case, which had led to his disqualification from Parliament in March 2023. The Supreme Court’s verdict not only marks Rahul Gandhi’s return as a member of Lok Sabha representing the Wayanad constituency in Kerala but has also put the BJP on the back foot in a highly debated episode seen by some as “politically motivated”.
In March 2023, a trial court in Surat had sentenced Rahul Gandhi to a two-year jail term in a criminal defamation case filed in 2019 by an individual called Purnesh Modi. The suit was in reference to Rahul Gandhi’s remarks at an election rally in Kolar, Karnataka in April 2019 when he had said, “How come all thieves have Modi as a common surname?”
Rahul Gandhi’s allusion to Nirav Modi and Lalit Modi, fugitive businessmen accused of financial fraud, were interpreted as an insult to the “Modi community”, though his counsels repeatedly argued that Modi is an amorphous group and could not have caused prejudice to the petitioner or any other defined individual.
Earlier, Rahul Gandhi had failed to secure reprieve from the Gujarat High Court. The fact that he is the first person in independent India to receive the maximum sentence of two years in a defamation case led to widespread public opinion that political vendetta was at play. In an interview with Frontline, Congress leader Meem Afzal described the row involving Rahul Gandhi as a “political machination that has backfired badly for the BJP”.
Afzal, a former Parliamentarian, said Rahul Gandhi’s emergence as a frontline challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi has left the ruling dispensation jittery, especially following his successful Bharat Jodo Yatra and his “pioneering role in assembling different Opposition parties under one roof”. He also expressed a sense of disillusionment with the Gujarat courts. “The message that has gone to the people is that there was a political controversy at work, and the judiciary allowed it to pass,” he said.
Rasheed Kidwai, author and political analyst, reminded that attempts to co-opt the judiciary were first witnessed during Indira Gandhi’s regime and that it reflects poorly on our society and polity “if the distinction between the two institutions—the executive and the judiciary—gets blurred.” “The perception that the lower courts in Gujarat may have contained an element of political bias needs to be addressed. I hope the Chief Justice looks at an internal mechanism to safeguard lower courts from pronouncing judgments that seem to be advancing a political agenda,” he said.
Kidwai further said that the whole episode demonstrated that the hubris of being in power with a brute majority had impaired the BJP’s political pragmatism. “There was no need for the BJP to overtly get itself entangled with what was legally and technically a case between Rahul Gandhi and the petitioner. By rushing to disqualify him from Parliament and evicting him from his official residence, the BJP has ended up delivering him a moral victory even as the conviction itself is not overturned.”
The Supreme Court, in its observations, said that the trial court did not justify awarding the maximum sentence to Rahul Gandhi. “Ramifications of the trial court’s order are wide. Not only was Rahul Gandhi’s right to continue in public life affected but also that of the electorate who elected him,” the apex court said, but also underlined that what the Congress leader uttered was “not in good taste”.
The Congress hailed the court’s decision as a “victory of love over hate”. The INDIA alliance partners as well as other regional parties, such as the Bahujan Samaj Party, have expressed joy at Rahul Gandhi’s relief. BSP member of Parliament, Danish Ali, tweeted that it was “not a relief only to Rahulji but every individual who believes in democratic values, justice, and the spirit of the law”. Omar Abdullah of the National Conference was among the first ones to hail the Supreme Court intervention.
During the hearing at the apex court, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, who appeared as Rahul Gandhi’s counsel, underlined the importance of dissent in democracy and also the fact that Gandhi is “not a hardened criminal”. Legally, the case relied on the fact that the petitioner in the defamation case had failed to demonstrate any personal injury to his reputation. “Purnesh Modi’s original surname is not Modi. He belongs to Modh Vanika samaj,” Singhvi argued before a three-bench jury of Justices B.R. Gavai, P.S. Narasimha, and Sanjay Kumar.