A court in India’s western state of Gujarat has rejected Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s petition seeking a stay of conviction in a defamation case, increasing uncertainty over whether he will be able to contest an election due next year.
Gandhi was convicted last month in a case brought by a state legislator from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after comments the Congress party leader made in a speech were deemed to be insulting to the prime minister and other people surnamed Modi.
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The district court in Surat city had sentenced Gandhi to two years in prison for his 2019 remarks referring to two fugitive Indian businessmen, both surnamed Modi.
In an election rally that year, the 52-year-old leader had asked: “How come all thieves have the name Modi?”
Naishadh Desai, a Congress leader and lawyer, told reporters on Thursday the Surat court has not granted a stay on Gandhi’s conviction.
“We are going to challenge the decision in Gujarat High Court tomorrow [Friday]. We have full faith that the judiciary will uphold justice and save the democracy,” he said.
While Thursday’s ruling was a setback for Gandhi, his jail sentence remained suspended until he exhausts all his legal challenges to the conviction.
Gandhi lost his parliament seat in March after being convicted and sentenced to two years in jail for the Modi comments.
The law that governs elections in India mandates disqualification of any politician who is “convicted of any offence and sentenced to imprisonment for not less than two years”.
Gandhi risks losing his eligibility to run in elections for the next eight years if a court does not overturn his conviction and two-year sentence.
Senior Congress leader and Supreme Court lawyer Jairam Ramesh said the party would use every legal option to overturn Gandhi’s conviction.
The defamation case against Gandhi was brought by Purnesh Modi, a BJP legislator in Gujarat, Modi’s home state.
The BJP has repeatedly targeted the Gandhi family with allegations of corruption as part of its strategy to eliminate political threat from the Congress, and malign the reputation of a family that dominated Indian politics for decades after independence in 1947.
The prosecution of Gandhi, the great-grandson of India’s first prime minister and scion of a family that has had two other prime ministers, was widely condemned by opponents of Modi as the latest assault against democracy and free speech by a government seeking to crush dissent.
The speed of his removal from parliament had shocked Indian political parties and experts.