NEW DELHI: Top opposition figure Rahul Gandhi was expelled from India’s parliament on Friday, a day after his defamation conviction for a remark seen as an insult against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Modi’s government has been widely accused of using the law to target and silence critics, and the case in the premier’s home state of Gujarat is one of several lodged against his chief opponent in recent years.
Gandhi, of the opposition Congress party, was sentenced to two years imprisonment but walked free on bail after his lawyers vowed to appeal Thursday’s verdict.
However, the conviction has ruled him ineligible to continue sitting as a lawmaker in the lower house of the Indian parliament, a notice from the chamber’s joint secretary said.
“Rahul Gandhi has been speaking out fearlessly inside and outside the parliament… clearly he is paying a price for it,” Congress spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi told reporters.
“It signifies the systematic, repetitive emasculation of democratic institutions by the ruling party. It signifies the strangulation of democracy itself.”
Gandhi, 52, is the leading face of the Congress party, once the dominant force of Indian politics, but now a shadow of its former self.
He is the scion of India’s most famous political dynasty and the son, grandson and great-grandson of former prime ministers, beginning with independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru.
But he has struggled to challenge the electoral juggernaut of Modi’s party and its nationalist appeals to the country’s Hindu majority.
Thursday’s case stemmed from a remark made during the 2019 election campaign in which Gandhi had asked why “all thieves have Modi as (their) common surname”.
His comments were seen as a slur against the prime minister, who went on to win the election in a landslide.
Members of the government also said the remark was a smear against all those sharing the Modi surname, which is associated with the lower rungs of India’s traditional caste hierarchy.
– ‘Habitual loose cannon’ –
“Rahul Gandhi is a habitual loose cannon and he thinks he can say anything without ever facing the consequences,” information minister Anurag Thakur told reporters.
“Wherever he goes he tries to create a rift between communities.”
Ravi Shankar Prasad, a spokesman for Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), told reporters after Thursday’s verdict that the court had acted with “due judicial process”.
But Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a New Delhi-based writer and analyst, told AFP that the conviction showed the BJP “does not want Rahul Gandhi in parliament”.
He said the disqualification followed a “big storm” of disruptions to parliamentary proceedings by Congress lawmakers demanding a probe into Modi’s relationship with tycoon Gautam Adani.
The two men have been close associates for decades but Adani’s business empire has been subject to renewed scrutiny this year after a US investment firm accused it of “brazen” corporate fraud.
Congress lawmakers gathered outside parliament on Friday morning to protest Gandhi’s conviction and renew their demand for a probe into the Adani allegations.
The lawmakers were taken into custody for defying an ordinance banning demonstrations in the area.
“We have detained over two dozen members of opposition parties,” an officer at New Delhi’s Parliament Street police station told AFP. “They will be released soon.”
– Action against critics –
Several senior lawmakers have been disqualified from Indian legislatures in the past, including a state chief minister.
Indira Gandhi, Rahul’s grandmother, was briefly forced out of the chamber by a court decision in 1977 while she was prime minister.
But legal action has been widely deployed against opposition party figures and institutions seen as critical of the Modi government in recent years.
Gandhi himself faces at least two other defamation cases in the country and a money laundering case that has been snaking its way through India’s glacial legal system for more than a decade.
Federal investigators last month arrested a top member of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) which governs New Delhi on allegations he had corruptly benefitted from reforms to the capital’s liquor licensing rules.
The party is seeking to supplant Congress as the main opposition to Modi’s government and its members have decried the arrest as politically motivated.
Also in February, Indian tax authorities raided the BBC’s local offices, weeks after the broadcaster aired a documentary on Modi’s conduct during deadly sectarian riots decades ago.
The Editors Guild of India said then that the raids were part of a wider “trend of using government agencies to intimidate or harass press organisations that are critical of government policies”.