An Indian court on Monday suspended a two-year prison sentence for Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi as he appeals a criminal conviction for mocking the prime minister’s surname that saw him expelled from Parliament, dealing a huge blow to his Congress Party ahead of general elections next year.
Gandhi, a fierce critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his main challenger in the 2024 polls, was ousted after a court sentenced him to two years in prison for defamation for a comment made in a 2019 election speech.
The prosecution of Gandhi, the great-grandson of India’s first prime minister and scion of the dynastic Congress party, was widely condemned by opponents of Modi as the latest assaults against democracy and free speech by a ruling government seeking to crush dissent. The speed of his removal from Parliament shocked political circles in India.
Gandhi appeared in a court in the western state of Gujarat Monday to file an appeal and was granted bail for the duration of his appeals. He was given 30 days’ bail to file an appeal when he was convicted last month. The court set the next hearing for April 13.
A man who shares the prime minister’s surname, which is common in his home state of Gujarat, accused Gandhi of defamation over a 2019 speech in which he asked, “Why do all thieves have Modi as their surname?” Gandhi then referred to three well-known, and unrelated Modis, in the speech: a fugitive Indian diamond tycoon, a cricket executive banned from the Indian Premier League, and the prime minister. The petitioner who filed the case is a member of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in Gujarat, but is not related to the prime minister or the other two Modis Gandhi invoked in his speech.
Gandhi was convicted on March 23 and expelled from Parliament the next day, sparking opposition lawmakers to rally to his defense and call his expulsion a new low for India’s constitutional democracy. Gandhi was given bail for 30 days.
Under Indian law, a criminal conviction with a prison sentence of two years or more is grounds for expulsion from Parliament. If Gandhi’s conviction is not suspended or overturned by a higher court, he could face prison and will likely not be able to contest national elections in 2024.