Rahul Gandhi, the de facto leader of India’s main opposition party, was expelled from Parliament after being criminally convicted of defamation on Thursday.
“These are flimsy & cooked up charges,” Praveen Chakravarty, a spokesperson for the Indian National Congress, told TIME in a statement. Congress has accused the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi of “plain vendetta” after Gandhi spoke against the Indian billionaire tycoon, Gautam Adani, in Parliament.
On Thursday, a local court in the western state of Gujarat convicted and sentenced 52-year-old Gandhi to two years in prison over a speech he made during an election rally in 2019, during which he said: “Why do all thieves have Modi as their surname?”
Gandhi’s remarks referred to the Prime Minister along with Nirav Modi, a fugitive diamond tycoon, and Lalit Modi, the banned founder of the Indian Premier League. The defamation claim was filed by Purnesh Modi, a member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who said that Gandhi’s comment “defamed the entire Modi community.”
The Congress spokesperson told TIME that the party will be pursuing legal and political action. “We will appeal the conviction in higher courts but understand that the process is the punishment,” Chakravarty said. “We will take this issue to people through mass agitations & door-to-door contact programs.”
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Shortly after, Gandhi was also expelled from the lower house of Parliament and lost his seat as a state representative for Southern Kerala. According to an official statement issued on Friday, his disqualification is due to Indian parliamentary rules which mandate that those convicted of a crime and sentenced to two or more years in prison cannot serve as members of the lawmaking body.
Gandhi will not be serving any immediate jail time after the court granted him bail to file an appeal within 30 days. He can resume his parliamentary seat if he wins his appeal. However, if he loses, he will not be able to contest any Indian elections for the next eight years.
“Mr. Gandhi remains unperturbed and unflailing in his pursuit of truth and justice and will continue to raise important issues against the Modi government fearlessly,” said Chakravarty.
The BJP did not respond to TIME’s request for comment.
The events come ahead of a national election just over a year away, to be held in April and May 2024, which will see Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party seeking a third term in office.
The scion of a political dynasty that dominated Indian politics for decades, Gandhi resigned as the Congress party president after the 2019 election. Last year, the party appointed Mallikarjun Kharge as its new leader.
Although political analysts view Congress winning the next election as unlikely due to Modi’s steady popularity, Gandhi has nevertheless grabbed the attention of Indian voters in recent months. Last year, he undertook the months-long Bharat Jodo Yatra, or “Unite India March,” during which he walked nearly 2,500 miles across the country in an attempt to reconnect with Indian voters.
In recent months, he has also given fervent speeches in Parliament attacking the Modi administration over its close ties with Adani, who was accused of pulling “the largest con in corporate history” by U.S. short seller Hindenburg in January. Gandhi seized the Adani scandal as an opportunity to talk about India’s stagnant economy and high unemployment rate.
Elected BJP officials have accused the Congress party of having a “feudal mindset” and “a sense of entitlement” for criticizing the conviction. “Law is equal for everyone,” the Indian education minister, Dharmendra Pradhan, told reporters at a press conference. He also accused Gandhi of “abusing” oppressed castes by calling those with the last name Modi “thieves.”
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Legal experts in India expressed surprise over the court’s verdict. Unlike in the U.S. and the U.K., defamation is a criminal offense in India, not a civil one. On Twitter, one constitutional scholar posted that the defamation charge against Gandhi couldn’t stand in court unless an individual showed a direct reference to themselves, rather than a “generic class of persons.”
Apar Gupta, the executive director of an Indian non-profit, the Internet Freedom Foundation, posted on Twitter: “Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification for a conviction in a criminal defamation case is another blow against Indian democracy. One does not even need to be fond of him as a person or support his politics to understand it.”
He continued, “the colonial law has been twisted and used as a weapon to target an opposition member and bar their participation in Parliament. ”
The Congress Party said it is confident that Gandhi would get a stay on his conviction in court. “We retain our faith in India’s judiciary and are confident that truth will triumph,” Chakravarty told TIME.
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