Congress in firefighting mode after Surat court’s verdict on Rahul
By G Krishna Mohan Rao*
New Delhi: Following the Surat district court conviction of Rahul Gandhi, today the Congress leadership swung into action for damage control with legal experts. Earlier today Surat district court in Gujarat held Rahul Gandhi guilty in a criminal defamation case filed against him by the Bharatiya Janata Party. The court sentenced Rahul Gandhi to two years in prison and a fine of Rs. 50,000. Rahul was immediately granted 30 days’ bail.
The verdict has generated widespread discussion about the implications of the conviction and its possible political fallout including the risk of Rahul being disqualified from Lok Sabha membership.
The case is related to a speech Rahul Gandhi made during a campaign rally in Kolar, Karnataka, on April 13, 2019, ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. In the speech, he used political satire to draw similarities between the surnames of Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Rahul said, “Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi, Narendra Modi…how come they all have Modi as a common surname? How come all thieves have Modi as a common surname?”
The case was filed against Rahul Gandhi by BJP MLA Purnesh Modi, who alleged that the remarks were defamatory and had damaged the reputation of the Modi family. Rahul Gandhi denied the charges and argued that he was exercising his right to freedom of speech and expression. However, the Surat court found him guilty of criminal defamation and sentenced him accordingly. Soon after the verdict, a political debate sparked in the Parliament today with leaders from both the BJP and the Congress Party commenting on the case. Some have accused the BJP of using the legal system to silence its critics, while others have argued that Gandhi’s comments were irresponsible and defamatory.
On the other hand, legal experts have noted that Rahul Gandhi’s conviction puts him at risk of being disqualified from Parliament under the RPA (Representation of People Act). Section 8(3) of the Act states that any member of Parliament who is convicted of an offence and sentenced to imprisonment for a term of two years or more shall be disqualified from holding office. If Gandhi is disqualified, his Wayanad, Lok Sabha seat in Kerala, will become vacant, and there will be a need for a by-election.
However, Rahul Gandhi’s legal team has said that they plan to challenge the verdict in a higher court. They will appeal for suspension of the sentence and a freeze on the order, and if this is not granted, they will move the case to the Supreme Court. If the conviction is not set aside by any higher court, Rahul Gandhi will also be barred from contesting elections for the next eight years.
Legal experts have noted that a two-year sentence in a criminal defamation case under Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code, under which Rahul Gandhi was convicted, is extremely rare. The case relates to a speech Rahul Gandhi made during an election rally during the last Lok Sabha election.
The Surat court gave its verdict in the case on Wednesday, March 22, 2023, the hearing of which concluded last Friday (March 17, 2023). The final arguments resumed last month after the Gujarat High Court vacated its stay on proceedings imposed on a plea by the complainant demanding Rahul Gandhi’s personal appearance.
The complainant argued that electronic evidence produced before the court containing Rahul’s Kolar speech established that he made the Modi surname remarks which defamed the Modi community. Rahul’s lawyer, on the other hand, argued that the court proceedings were flawed as the procedure laid down under section 202 of the Criminal procedure code(CrPC) was not followed. He also argued that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and not MLA Purnesh Modi, should have been the complainant. This was because the Prime Minister was the main target of his speech.
According to sources, Rahul Gandhi today reached the court directly from the airport. Senior Congress leaders like state president Jagdish Thakor, Raghu Sharma and Amit Chanda had already arrived at Surat prior to Rahul’s arrival. Congress activists from all across Gujarat stood at four junctions on the way to the court to welcome him. Rahul Gandhi had come to Surat earlier on three occasions for the case.
– Senior journalist