In a major relief to former Congress president Rahul Gandhi, the Supreme Court on Friday stayed his conviction in a defamation case, a decision that allows him to return to the Lok Sabha and contest the national elections due next year.
His disqualification from the Lok Sabha now stands in abeyance and the Opposition may even project him as the prime ministerial candidate against Narendra Modi.
Gandhi was convicted by a Surat court on March 23 this year, with the court sentencing him to two years in jail in a case brought by a Gujarat Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA Purnesh Modi, over comments the Congress leader made in 2019 deemed insulting to Narendra Modi and other people surnamed Modi, including the petitioner MLA.
The jail term of Gandhi, 53, the scion of a dynasty that has given India three prime ministers, was put on hold and he was granted bail.
SC questions quantum of punishment
The Supreme Court on Friday questioned the sentence handed to Rahul by the lower court. A bench of Justices BR Gavai, PS Narasimha and PV Sanjay Kumar said the trial court did not give specific reasons for imposing the maximum punishment under the offence.
“Particularly when the offence was non-compoundable, bailable and cognizable, the least which was expected from the learned trial judge was to give reasons for imposing the maximum punishment. Though the learned appellate court and the High Court have spent voluminous pages in rejecting the applications, these aspects are not seen considered,” the Bench said.
“It is to be noted that it is only on account of the maximum sentence of two years imposed by the learned trial judge that the provisions of Section 8(3) of the Representation of Peoples Act came into play. Had the sentence been a day less, the provisions would not have attracted,” the Bench said.
The Supreme Court, however, also said that Gandhi’s remarks in Kolar before the 2019 elections — for which the case was filed — were “not in good taste”.
Lower courts and the high court in Gujarat had rejected appeals by Gandhi to suspend the conviction, causing him to appeal to the Supreme Court.
But for the relief by the top court, Gandhi’s political career would have ended since the two-year conviction, the maximum in the defamation case, which was never imposed on anybody, not only resulted in him losing the Lok Sabha membership but also prevented him from contesting the next year's elections as well as the 2029 elections since the Representation of Peoples Act bars him from contesting for six years after the conviction.
Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury called it a day of "great happiness." He also said that he will contact the Speaker at this very moment and write a letter today itself to admit Rahul Gandhi back as MP after the SC order.
The Supreme Court on Friday (August 4) began hearing of an appeal filed by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi challenging Gujarat High Court order which declined to stay his conviction in the criminal defamation case over 'Modi surname' remark.