India’s most well-known opposition leader Rahul Gandhi is facing another setback after a high court judge refused to suspend his conviction for defamation, a case critics allege is politically motivated.
The judge in Gujarat high court called Gandhi’s conviction “just, proper and legal” and said “no injustice” would be done to the politician by refusing to grant his plea.
In March, Gandhi, the most influential leader of India’s opposition Congress party, was given a rare conviction in a defamation case over a 2019 campaign speech in which he linked the prime minister, Narendra Modi, with two high-profile criminals, commenting: “Why is it that all thieves have Modi as a common name?”
Purnesh Modi, a legislator in the prime minister’s home state of Gujarat, subsequently filed a case in the courts alleging that all those named Modi in the country had been offended and defamed by Gandhi’s comment.
As well as being found guilty of defamation, the judge handed Gandhi an unusually harsh prison sentence of two years, the exact period that meant he would also be disqualified as a member of parliament and from running in next year’s general election.
Gandhi alleged the case was politically motivated as a means to get him expelled from parliament and pledged to appeal against the conviction. In April, a lower court in Gujarat had already refused to grant a stay on his conviction.
Gandhi’s lawyer, Abhishek Singhvi, confirmed they would now take the case up to India’s top court, seeking a stay on the conviction so his client could run in the next general election.
“We have full faith in the judiciary, especially the supreme court where we are moving now,” Singhvi told a press conference.
Friday’s verdict by the Gujarat high court also means Gandhi will be unable to attend the upcoming session of parliament.
Singhvi criticised the judgment given by the Gujarat high court judge Hemant Prachchhak, who had brought up other pending cases filed against Gandhi which have yet to be heard by the courts and were unrelated to the defamation case. Prachchhak said in his critical ruling against Gandhi that there “needed to be purity in politics”.
Congress leaders said the verdict was “disappointing but not unexpected” and accused the ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) government of weaponising the judiciary as part of its attacks on the political opposition.
The BJP welcomed the verdict, calling Gandhi a “habitual offender of defaming leaders and the country”.