By Sushil Kutty
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi is no longer a Member of Parliament. Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla took the decision to disqualify the Gandhi Family scion following his conviction in a case of criminal defamation, with two-year jail sentence. Less than two years of jail and he wouldn’t have ended up in this mess. But, irony of irony, it was Rahul Gandhi who tore up an ordinance to amend the law drafted by the Manmohan Singh government. The disqualification came the day after a Surat court convicted Rahul Gandhi. Rahul Gandhi was given the option to “apologise”, but he refused. The Congress had called the verdict “infirm, erroneous and unsustainable”.
The defamation case dates back to 2019. The verdict wasn’t unexpected, it was on its way coming. Truly, there couldn’t have been a better way to tame Rahul Gandhi than by reading him the riot act with a criminal defamation charge. Now, if the charge was civil defamation, the ripple-effect would have dissipated even before the first stone was cast at the Congress MP; who, ironically, had just a few days ago said, “Unfortunately, I am an MP!”
Rahul Gandhi was asked by the Surat Court if he wanted to “apologise”, but he refused. Today, Wayanad in Kerala has lost its MP to a court verdict. And Rahul Gandhi might not be able to contest elections for six years, unless a higher court overturns the verdict. The fact that the judge in the case suspended the 2-year jail sentence, the maximum jail-time in a criminal defamation case, for 30 days did not make a difference. There was no margin of error, so to speak. Earlier, the Congress was debating the MP status of Rahul Gandhi. One group, dominated by legal-eagles, was advising Rahul not to go to Parliament, and the second group was urging Rahul Gandhi to head for Parliament and be done with it!
The disqualification has put the debate to rest. The debate was also on what exactly was “defaming” in what Rahul Gandhi said at a party rally in Kolar, Karnataka in the year 2019? Lawyers were splitting hair on the difference between “all thieves have the surname ‘So and So’” and “all those with surname ‘So and So’ are thieves”. Also, would it have made a difference, if the Rahul Gandhi’s words were in the form of a question and not a straightforward blanket statement?
The Surat Court was told in October 2019 that Rahul Gandhi had during the course of his rally speech mentioned Lalit Modi, Nirav Modi and Narendra Modi and asked “how come all the thieves have Modi as the common surname?”, adding “will there be more of the same surname?”
Point to note was that none of the three named — Lalit, Nirav, Narendra — took offence and head for court, but the Surat BJP MLA Purnesh Modi felt so offended that his surname had figured in Rahul’s April 13, 2019 speech, “defaming the entire Modi community”, which is an OBC community, that he lodged a case under IPC sections 499 and 500.
Purnesh Modi later became a minister in the Gujarat government. But that is part of trivia attached to this watershed moment in Indian history — a Gandhi family member convicted for asking a loaded question; and now disqualified from the membership of the Lok Sabha. If the verdict on Rahul Gandhi is not overturned, he will be the third member of the Nehru-Gandhi family, after Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, to end up behind bars.
The BJP was naturally gloating at the gloom in the Congress. And the “political slugfest” carried well into the night. The rest of the national parties rallied behind the Congress leader, even Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal who charged the BJP with “hatching a conspiracy to eliminate” political opponents. He was careful he didn’t defame the Modi surname!
For now, Rahul Gandhi is on bail, till a higher court reversed the verdict. Rahul Gandhi has 30 days to appeal in a higher court. Erstwhile Congress leader Kapil Sibal said, “His disqualification is automatic. Legal processes are used far too often for political ends!” He called the verdict “bizarre.” Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge called the disqualification was primarily to help Modi-Adani to help get out of the hole the two were in.
Friday, talk also proliferated that the conviction of Rahul Gandhi has strengthened chances of opposition unity, which had been eluding the opposition parties for months if not years. NCP Chief Sharad Pawar was said to be leading the “Allies” against the “Evil Axis”. Meanwhile, the BJP did not stop attacking Rahul Gandhi with statements like “cannot blame all Gandhi surnames just because Rahul insulted Indian democracy.”
That was Law Minister Kiren Rijiju at his wittiest. The Opposition was not amused. What has changed overnight is that the Surat court’s verdict has made all the opposition parties come out in support of Rahul Gandhi’s London remarks, too. The adverse verdict and now, after the disqualification, has triggered a sense of collective victimhood, and the feeling that there was something underhand and malicious going on behind the Opposition’s back. And that they all were in it together.
This, even as Congress leaders including Rahul Gandhi met at the Congress Parliamentary Office in Parliament, led by Congress President and LOP in the Rajya Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, to discuss the strategy to take on the Modi government and the BJP post the Surat verdict.
Rahul Gandhi was present in the Surat court when the verdict convicting him was read out. To a question from the judge, Rahul said he had nothing to say. Later, he tweeted, “My religion is based on truth and non-violence. Truth is my God, non-violence is the means to get it — Mahatma Gandhi.” He also paid tributes to freedom fighters Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru in another tweet. For the Congress rank and file, Rahul Gandhi was the epitome of Bhagat Singh, no less. That said, Rahul Gandhi has learned an important lesson. After all the success of Bharat Jodo Yatra, a new period of political struggle has begun. Irrespective of what finally happens, Rahul Gandhi’s process of full conversion into a political animal has begun. That is good for the Congress Party. (IPA Service)