Rahul Gandhi, the head of the opposition in India, was found guilty of defamation on Thursday for a speech he gave in 2019 in which he said that robbers go by the surname Modi. He was given a two-year prison sentence.
Gandhi, a prominent member of the Congress party and a member of the Nehru-Gandhi political family, has announced that he will appeal the decision to a higher court. A court in the Gujarat state, the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in the city of Surat, issued the ruling.
An adviser to the federal government, Kanchan Gupta, said Gandhi, a member of the lower house of parliament, could face immediate disqualification as a member of parliament following the conviction in line with a 2013 order of the country’s highest court.
“The court has found Rahul Gandhi’s comment to be defamatory,” said Ketan Reshamwala, an advocate for complainant Purnesh Modi, a Gujarat lawmaker from the prime minister’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “He has been sentenced to two years in jail.”
Gandhi was present at the Surat court, which gave him bail immediately and suspended the sentence for a month.
In the speech ahead of the last general election in 2019, Gandhi referred to the prime minister and two fugitive Indian businessmen, all with the Modi surname, while talking about alleged high-level corruption in the country.
On Thursday, Gandhi told the court that his comment was not against any community.
Gandhi’s party said the case against him was brought by a “cowardly and dictatorial” BJP government because he was “exposing their dark deeds”.
“The Modi government is a victim of political bankruptcy”, Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge said on Twitter. “We will appeal in the higher court.”
Gupta, a senior adviser to the federal Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, said that Gandhi faced immediate disqualification as a lawmaker.
“In a democracy, nobody, absolutely nobody is above the law,” Gupta said on Twitter. “All are equal. The law, therefore, equally applies to Rahul Gandhi.”
Congress spokesperson Supriya Shrinate said the party had “all legal recourse available to us and we will use them”.
“Hopefully, the law of the land will prevail,” she said.
Gandhi, one of Modi’s main rivals ahead of the 2024 general election, won support from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that rules Delhi and two of whose top leaders are in jail on what they call trumped-up charges.
“A conspiracy is being hatched to eliminate non-BJP leaders and parties by prosecuting them,” AAP chief and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal wrote on Twitter.
“We have differences with the Congress, but it is not right to implicate Rahul Gandhi in a defamation case like this. It is the job of the public and the opposition to ask questions. We respect the court but disagree with the decision.”
Gandhi’s once-dominant Congress controls less than 10% of the elected seats in parliament’s lower house and lost badly to the BJP in the last two general elections.
Modi remains India’s most popular politician by a substantial margin and is widely expected to win a third victory at the next general election in 2024.