The Supreme Court took action on Friday to suspend the conviction of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in a criminal defamation case. The reasoning behind this move was that the trial judge had not adequately explained why he warranted the maximum two-year penalty according to the law. Additionally, the Court believed that his ongoing disqualification from Parliament would hinder the representation of his constituency.
This decision opens the door for Gandhi to reclaim his status as a Member of Parliament after a period of 134 days during which he was ineligible. As a result, he could potentially participate in the upcoming debate on a no-confidence motion against the council of ministers in the Narendra Modi government next week.
In response, Rahul Gandhi stated, “I have a clear path ahead. I am certain about my duties and responsibilities. I extend my gratitude to those who supported us. I also thank the people for their love and backing.”
In 2019, Gandhi was elected to the Lok Sabha from Kerala’s Wayanad constituency. He had been convicted on March 23, 2023, by a Surat trial court, which imposed a maximum two-year jail term in connection with his comments about the “Modi” surname during a campaign rally. Consequently, his disqualification from the Lok Sabha was declared by the Lok Sabha secretariat on March 24. His appeal to the Gujarat high court was dismissed on July 7.
While acknowledging that Gandhi should have exercised greater caution due to his public standing, a bench comprising justices B.R. Gavai and P.S. Narasimha emphasized that his disqualification was solely due to the two-year jail term, and even a day less could have saved his membership.
Therefore, the Supreme Court deemed it necessary for the Surat trial court to specify the grounds for awarding the maximum punishment for defamation, especially since the offense was categorized as bailable, non-cognizable, and compoundable in the Indian Penal Code.
The Court highlighted the extensive repercussions of this punishment, noting that it not only impacted Gandhi’s right to public life but also compromised the representation of his constituents.
Given these circumstances, the Supreme Court decided to stay Gandhi’s conviction while the appellate court proceedings are underway. The Court also expedited the proceedings in the sessions court.
Senior counsel Abhishek Singhvi contended that Gandhi’s alleged offense should not be considered one involving moral turpitude and urged the Court to overturn the maximum penalty.
Gandhi’s eligibility to return to Parliament could be restored as early as the upcoming Monday, with officials indicating that the Lok Sabha Secretariat had received a copy of the Supreme Court’s order. However, it remains unclear whether the Secretariat had issued a notice regarding the revival of Gandhi’s status by the time of printing.
In his affidavit, Gandhi asserted that he would not apologize to settle the defamation case. He argued that his conviction was unsustainable, claiming he had an “excellent” chance of success in his appeal.
The top court had issued a notice on July 21 in response to Gandhi’s appeal against the Gujarat high court order, which declined to suspend his conviction and two-year jail term in the defamation case. Gandhi’s appeal, filed on July 15, sought to overturn the high court’s ruling that his offense involved “moral turpitude.”