An Indian court has suspended a two-year prison sentence for Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi as he appeals against a criminal conviction for mocking the Prime Minister’s surname that saw him expelled from Parliament, dealing a huge blow to his Congress Party ahead of general elections next year.
Gandhi, a fierce critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his main challenger in the 2024 polls, was ousted after a court sentenced him to two years in prison for defamation over a comment made in a 2019 election speech.
The prosecution of Gandhi, the great-grandson of India’s first prime minister and scion of the dynastic Congress party, was widely condemned by opponents of Mr Modi as the latest assaults against democracy and free speech by a ruling government seeking to crush dissent.
The speed of his removal from Parliament shocked political circles in India.
Gandhi appeared in a court in the western state of Gujarat on Monday to file an appeal and was granted bail for the duration of his appeals. He was given 30 days’ bail to file an appeal when he was convicted last month. The court set the next hearing for April 13.
A man who shares the Prime Minister’s surname, which is common in his home state of Gujarat, accused Gandhi of defamation over a 2019 speech in which he asked: “Why do all thieves have Modi as their surname?”
Gandhi 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, and the prime minister.
The petitioner who filed the case is a member of Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in Gujarat, but is not related to the prime minister or the other two Modis Gandhi invoked in his speech.
Gandhi was convicted on March 23 and expelled from Parliament the next day, sparking opposition members to rally to his defence, calling his expulsion a new low for India’s constitutional democracy. Gandhi was given bail for 30 days.
Under Indian law, a criminal conviction with a prison sentence of two years or more is grounds for expulsion from Parliament.
If Gandhi’s conviction is not suspended or overturned by a higher court, he could face prison and will likely not be able to contest national elections in 2024.
Mr Modi’s critics say India’s democracy — the world’s largest with nearly 1.4 billion people — has been in retreat since he first came to power in 2014.
They accuse his populist government of pursuing a Hindu nationalist agenda, a charge his administration has denied. Mr Modi’s government says its policies benefit all Indians.
Gandhi’s family, starting with his great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, has produced three prime ministers.
Two of them — Rahul Gandhi’s grandmother, Indira Gandhi, and father, Rajiv Gandhi — were assassinated.
Even though Gandhi is projected to be the main challenger to the Modi government, his Indian National Congress party has suffered humiliating defeats in the last two general elections.
In a bid to woo voters, Gandhi has railed against Mr Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party in recent months, accusing them of corruption and of tarnishing India’s democratic credentials.