An unconventionally quick judicial proceeding in a defamation case and an unusually quick verdict delivered on March 23 resulted in former Congress president Rahul Gandhi being disqualified from Parliament on March 24. With opposition parties banding together in various fora both inside and outside Parliament in response to this development, the stage seems set for the 2024 Lok Sabha election.
The Chief Judicial Magistrate court in Surat, Gujarat, sentenced Gandhi to two years in prison. According to Section 8 (3) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 (RPA), “A person convicted of any offence and sentenced to imprisonment for not less than two years… shall be disqualified from the date of such conviction and shall continue to be disqualified for a further period of six years since his release.” The Lok Sabha Secretariat lost no time in notifying that the MP “representing Wayanad parliamentary constituency of Kerala stands disqualified from the membership of the Lok Sabha from the date of his conviction”.
Questions about the unseemly haste and disproportionality of the ruling and about the use of the criminal defamation law have been discussed by experts, but Gandhi and the Congress point to the other factors at play. “Please understand why,” the former said in his first press conference after disqualification. “I have been disqualified because the Prime Minister is scared of my next speech. He is scared of the next speech that is going to come on Adani…. I have seen it in his eyes. He is terrified of the next speech that is going to come and they don’t want that in Parliament.” About his disqualification, he said, “I don’t care even if I am permanently disqualified because my tapasya is to work for the people. Disqualify me for life, put me in jail.” On Twitter, Rahul Gandhi added the words “Dis’Qualified MP” to his bio.
How it began
Although Gandhi has been vocal in his attack on the Adani Group and its vastly expanding business footprint since Narendra Modi assumed power in 2014, the powerful ruling party, with the aid of its media handmaidens, has found it easy to swat his questions away. That changed on January 24, when the New York based Hindenburg Research, which takes short positions based on forensic financial research into business conglomerates, published a report on the Adani Group’s “brazen stock manipulation and accounting fraud scheme over the course of decades”.
That gave Gandhi the ammo to resume his charge of crony capitalism against the Modi government. On February 7, he raised the issue in Parliament, claiming that “magic” happened after 2014, which made Gautam Adani the world’s second richest man. He displayed a photograph showing Narendra Modi sitting with Gautam Adani in the businessman’s private plane to underline their alleged proximity. His party along with other opposition parties demanded a Joint Parliamentary Committee to probe the nexus. Not only was this demand ignored, but the government did not allow the Adani issue to be discussed in Parliament at all. Worse, the Lok Sabha Speaker expunged Gandhi’s speech almost in its entirety from the records.
Gandhi then left for a trip to the UK, where on March 6, he made a speech in Chatham House, London. Here he said, “The surprising thing is that… the US, European countries, seem to be oblivious that a huge chunk of democratic model has come undone. The opposition is fighting the battle and it is not an Indian battle alone, actually it is much more of a bigger battle, a battle for a huge part of democratic people.”
The BJP quickly used this speech to mount an attack on Rahul Gandhi for “insulting India in London”, thus effectively deflecting attention from the Adani question. And, keeping up the pressure, it reopened an old defamation case against him.
The defamation complaint is about an election speech Gandhi made in Kolar, Karnataka, on April 16, 2019, ahead of the Lok Sabha election. “How is it that these names, all these names of thieves, have Modi, Modi, Modi in their name? Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi, Narendra Modi. If we search more, more such Modis will emerge,” he said in a rally.
Purnesh Modi, a BJP MLA from Gujarat, filed a complaint claiming the comment was offensive to all Modis. A lengthy trial ensued. On March 7, 2022, Purnesh obtained a stay of the proceedings in the magistrate’s court from the Gujarat High Court.
That is where matters stood until February 2023, when the complainant revoked his own stay at the High Court. The Chief Judicial Magistrate reserved orders on March 17, and delivered a verdict on March 23.
Congress leader Jairam Ramesh pointed out that the defamation case against Gandhi was fast-tracked, taking place just nine days after Gandhi’s speech in the Lok Sabha questioning Modi’s connection with Gautam Adani. Former Kerala Finance Minister and CPI(M) leader Thomas Isaac said that “the reaction of the BJP places the judgment, totally disproportionate to the allegation, suspect of mischief”.
According to Manickam Tagore, the Congress Whip, Gandhi has been the target of BJP’s attacks for a long time. His security was scaled down, Tagore told Frontline, when he began targeting corporate entities close to Narendra Modi.
- The disqualification of Rahul Gandhi from Parliament has resulted in a rare show of unity among opposition party leaders.
- The defamation case against Gandhi took place just nine days after Gandhi’s speech in the Lok Sabha questioning Modi’s connection with Gautam Adani.
- Rahul Gandhi must deal with more than just disqualification. There is a two-year prison term too.
The disqualification resulted in a rare show of unity among opposition party leaders, who came together to protest the development. They demanded the BJP government probe the questions that Gandhi had raised in Parliament. A joint opposition protest on March 27 in the Parliament House complex raised the slogan: “Dear ED [Enforcement Directorate], daro mat; Adani par raid karo.” [Dear ED, don’t be scared, raid Adani].
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who had earlier refused to be part of a united opposition front ahead of the 2024 election, condemned the action. Picking her words carefully and not naming Rahul Gandhi, she said that in Modi’s New India, opposition leaders had become the prime target. “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,” she said. Significantly, the Trinamool participated in the March 27 joint opposition protest, and also in the strategy meeting hosted by Mallikarjun Kharge that evening.
Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav, who as late as on March 18, had stated that his party would remain equidistant from the Congress and the BJP in the run-up to 2024, said: “Defamation of the country, defamation of the public, defamation of harmony, defamation of the Constitution, defamation of the economy…. Don’t know how many defamation cases should be filed against the BJP.”
Denouncing the action of disqualifying Gandhi, CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury said, “It is condemnable that the BJP is now using the criminal defamation route to target opposition leaders and disqualify them. This comes on top of the gross misuse of ED/CBI [Enforcement Directorate/Central Bureau of Investigation] against the opposition. Resist and defeat such authoritarian assaults.”
Yechury went further to accuse the Modi government of trying to conceal its patronage for Adani. He asked how the government could claim in Parliament on March 21 that it had no definition of shell companies and hence no information on them when the government had in June 2018 announced a task force to tackle the threat of shell companies.
Yechury’s party colleague and Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan described the episode as “BJP’s authoritarian rampage”. Despite the fact that his Left Democratic Front and the Congress-led United Democratic Front are political rivals in Kerala, Vijayan did not mince words: “This brazen assault is an insult to our democratic values and can’t be overlooked. It must be unequivocally denounced.”
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, who has backed the need for a Congress-led opposition for 2024, asserted that “it is now clear how much the BJP is scared of Rahul Gandhi…. Nobody from the Union government has responded so far to any of Rahul Gandhi’s accusations in Parliament.”
According to former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti the Union government is “clearly rattled” by Rahul Gandhi’s emergence as a powerful challenger. “Since the BJP can’t fight him politically, they are now subverting institutions,” she said.
Uddhav Thackeray, former Maharashtra Chief Minister, who had his party literally stolen from him, questioned why thieves and looters were still free and someone like Gandhi punished. “Calling a thief a thief has become a crime in our country…. This is the beginning of the end of dictatorship,” he said. And, despite taking umbrage at Gandhi’s remark on V.D. Savarkar whom the Shiv Sainiks consider a hero, Uddhav Thackeray sent a representative to the strategy meeting.
Bharat Rashtra Samithi leader and Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao described Gandhi’s disqualification as a “black day” in the “history of Indian democracy”. Rao, who has proposed a third front ahead of the 2024 election, said that rather than fighting each other “all democrats should come together and safeguard democracy and constitutional values”. The BRS also sent a representative to the strategy meeting.
Even Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who has been fiercely critical of the Congress and fancies the AAP as a solo national alternative, said: “By eliminating the opposition, these people [the BJP] want to create one-nation, one-party. This is dictatorship.”
One of the most persuasive speakers on television after Gandhi’s disqualification was former Congress leader Kapil Sibal. Referring to the BJP’s oft-repeated statement that the party was not defending Adani, he questioned why there had been no investigation by the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) on the pattern of holding, no Joint Parliamentary Committee on the allocation of airports and other issues, no CBI investigation into the many acts of commission and omission by Adani as detailed in the Hinderberg report, and no ED probe into money laundering.
Also Read | Rahul Gandhi: The punching bag
Meanwhile, the Lok Sabha Housing Committee lost no time in asking Rahul Gandhi to vacate his house on 12, Tughlak Lane, within 30 days [by April 22], as required by law. Nationalist Congress Party leader Saleem Sarang asked why this rule was selectively applied to Gandhi when both L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi were still living in government bungalows despite not being MPs.
Rahul Gandhi must deal with more than just disqualification. There is a two-year prison term too. From his speech it appears as if he might welcome a prison sentence, but that might be just rhetoric.
In the case of Lakshadweep MP Mohammed Faizal P.P. (NCP), the Kerala High Court had suspended a lower court’s sentence convicting him and the Supreme Court had directed the Election Commission to withdraw a byelection notification. When the Lok Sabha Secretariat did not revoke his disqualification for more than two months Faizal approached the Supreme Court again. On March 29, just before the case came up, the Secretariat revoked his disqualification. Now, however, the Supreme Court has declared that it will examine the rectitude of the original stay order. Given the Rahul Gandhi case, this assumes special significance.
Things played out rather differently for Sikkim Chief Minister Prem Singh Tamang, founder of the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha party, which is an ally of the BJP. He was disqualified from the State Assembly on January 13, 2017, after being convicted for misappropriating government funds. In 2019, the Election Commission reduced his disqualification period from six years to 13 months and recorded, among others, the bizarre reason that “the Governor had invited him to form the government” even though he had not contested the Assembly elections. The EC later allowed him to contest the byelection based on his request.
Technically speaking, Gandhi can still avail himself of Section 11 of the RPA, 1951, which says, “The Election Commission may, for reasons to be recorded, remove any disqualification… or reduce the period of disqualification.” Practically speaking, the BJP will likely try every trick in the book to keep him out of active politics at least until the 2024 elections are over.