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India’s Congress leader Gandhi sentenced to jail for remark on Modi

India’s Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi addresses a rally in New Delhi on September 4, 2022. (File photo by AFP)

Clashes have erupted across India in the wake of a court ruling that sentenced opposition leader Rahul Gandhi to two years in prison in a criminal defamation case.

The judgment was passed by the court in Surat, located in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state of Gujarat.

Gandhi, the 52-year-old politician, was sentenced on charges of defamation for a 2019 speech in which he referred to thieves as having the surname Modi.

“Accused Rahul Gandhi is held guilty … and sentenced to two years simple imprisonment,” Harish Varma, the chief judicial magistrate of Surat, said in his order.

Gandhi was present at the Surat court, which gave him bail immediately and suspended the sentence for a month.

Gandhi will appeal at a higher court, but it is potentially a big blow for his Congress party ahead of the 2024 general election.

An adviser to the federal government, Kanchan Gupta, said Gandhi could face immediate disqualification from parliament following the conviction. A two-year jail term would mean Gandhi would not be able to contest the 2024 vote.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) says due judicial process has been followed in the case, which dates back to the campaign ahead of the previous election. Back then in 2019, Gandhi referred to the prime minister and two fugitive Indian businessmen, all surnamed Modi, while talking about alleged high-level corruption in the country. Speaking at a rally in Karnataka state in April that year, Gandhi had said, “Why do all these thieves have Modi as their surname? Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi, Narendra Modi.”

Nirav Modi is a fugitive Indian diamond tycoon while Lalit Modi is a former chief of the Indian Premier League who has been banned for life by the country's cricket board. Gandhi says he made the comment to highlight corruption and it was not directed against any community.

Following the court verdict, Congress party supporters rallied behind Gandhi, with many state units planning protests later in the day and on Friday.

Demonstrators in Kolkata clashed with police, while dozens of opposition leaders stood in parliament premises chanting slogans against the sentence.

Gandhi is the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, which has given three prime ministers to India. His great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, was the first and longest-serving prime minister of India. His grandmother, Indira Gandhi, was the first female prime minister of the country, and his father, Rajiv Gandhi, was India's youngest prime minister.

Their party, the Congress, governed India almost continuously – except for a few years – from independence in 1947 to 2014, when Narendra Modi's BJP swept to power by a landslide. Since then, the Congress has become a shadow of its former self, and was routed again by the BJP in 2019.

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