Rahul Gandhi set to return as lawmaker after India’s top court stays defamation conviction

Indian oppostion leader Rahul Gandhi could return to politics in time for next year’s national elections after a court halted his conviction in a defamation case over the name ‘Modi’.

Gandhi, a fierce critic of prime minister Narendra Modi and touted as his main challenger in the 2024 polls, lost his seat in the lower house of India’s parliament in March after a court found him guilty of criminal defamation over remarks he made about several personalities with the surname “Modi”.

He was sentenced to the maximum penalty for criminal defamation of two years in prison, with the jail term put on hold pending his appeal. Now his conviction will also be paused until the appeal, meaning he can resume his seat in parliament.

Gandhi tweeted soon after the ruling. “Come what may, my duty remains the same. Protect the idea of India.”

Several figures from his Congress party, and other parties allied to it, welcomed the court order.

“Justice has prevailed. No force can silence the voice of the people,” said KC Venugopal.

“The Supreme Court’s order today is a vindication of the argument that we have consistently pressed before every court – from the trial court to the Supreme Court ... We maintain that the case was manufactured with the sole intention of keeping Mr Rahul Gandhi from Parliament,” said P Chidambaram, a former federal minister and current lawmaker from the Congress.

“I welcome the Supreme Court verdict staying Rahul Gandhi‘s conviction in a case that had no legs to stand upon,” said Mehbooba Mufti, the president of Jammu and Kashmir People’s Democratic Party.

“Why all the thieves, be it Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi or Narendra Modi, have Modi in their names?” Gandhi had said during a rally in the southern Karnataka state in 2019 while referring to a business tycoon, a former Indian Premier League cricket chief and the Indian prime minister respectively.

The defamation case was filed by Purnesh Modi, a state-level lawmaker from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in prime minister Modi’s home state Gujarat. He claimed Gandhi’s comments had “defamed the entire Modi community”.

Gandhi‘s conviction was upheld by the Gujarat state High Court so he had filed an appeal in the country’s Supreme Court last month.

While the apex court provided a temporary relief to Gandhi, it noted in its order that the remarks were not in good taste, and said: “The petitioner ought to have been more careful in making speeches.”

“The ramifications of disqualification not just affect the right of the individual but also the electorate,” said the three judge bench comprising of Justices BR Gavai, PS Narasimha and Sanjay Kumar.

The prosecution of Gandhi, the great-grandson of India’s first prime minister and scion of the main opposition Congress party, was condemned by opponents of Mr Modi’s BJP as an assault on democracy and free speech by a government seeking to crush an election rival. The speed of his removal from parliament shocked Indian politics.

Gandhi was convicted on 23 March and expelled from parliament the next day, sparking opposition lawmakers from a range of parties to rally to his defence and calling his expulsion a new low for India’s constitutional democracy.