India court rejects Rahul Gandhi’s plea to stay defamation ruling

The order quashes for now the Congress leader’s hope of returning to parliament and contesting national election due next year.

A high court in the western Indian state of Gujarat has rejected an appeal by opposition leader Rahul Gandhi to suspend his conviction in a defamation case.

Friday’s order quashes for now the Congress leader’s hope of returning to parliament, contesting national elections due next year.

Gandhi can now take his appeal to a larger bench of the Gujarat High Court and then to the Supreme Court, his last option.

Justice Hemant Prachchhak of the Gujarat High Court said in his order that a stay of conviction is not a rule but an exemption to be resorted to in rare cases.

“The refusal of stay of conviction would not in any way result in injustice to the applicant,” the judge said.

“There is no reasonable ground to stay the conviction of the applicant in view of the facts and circumstances of the case.”There was no immediate response from Gandhi to the verdict.

Gandhi was convicted in March this year in a case brought by state legislator Purnesh Modi from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after comments he made in 2019 were deemed to be insulting to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other people surnamed Modi.

The legislator who shares the prime minister’s surname, which is common in Gujarat, accused the opposition leader of defamation over a speech in which he asked, “Why do all thieves have Modi as their surname?”

Gandhi had 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 (IPL), and the prime minister.

The BJP legislator who filed the case is not related to the prime minister or the other two Modis mentioned by Gandhi, who is a fierce Modi critic and the prime minister’s main challenger in the 2024 polls.

The 53-year-old scion of a dynasty that has given India three prime ministers was sentenced to two years imprisonment, but the jail term was put on hold and he was given bail.

He also lost his parliamentary seat following the conviction since legislators sentenced to jail terms of two years or more are automatically disqualified.

Gandhi now risks losing his eligibility to run in elections for the next six years if a court does not overturn his conviction and the two-year sentence.

Congress spokesman Jairam Ramesh said the Gujarat court’s judgment would be studied. “The judgement only redoubles our resolve to pursue the matter further,” Ramesh tweeted.

During the hearing of the case, Gandhi’s lawyer Abhishek Singhvi had argued that the crime for which Gandhi had been convicted is not “serious” and not being allowed to contest elections for eight years is “virtually semi-permanent in politics”.

Gandhi is only the second politician in India to be disqualified from parliament after being convicted. The other case was in January this year, but the legislator was subsequently reinstated.

Gandhi’s disqualification pushed India’s main opposition parties to sink their differences and join hands to plan a united challenge to Modi’s BJP in the 2024 national elections.