Indian opposition leader to avoid prison during appeals

Gandhi, a fierce critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his main rival in the 2024 election, was ousted after a court sentenced him to two years in prison for defamation for a comment made in a 2019 election speech.

The prosecution of Gandhi, the great-grandson of India’s first prime minister and scion of the dynastic Congress party, was widely condemned by Modi’s opponents as the latest attacks on democracy and free expression by a ruling government seeking crush dissent.

The speed with which he was removed from Parliament shocked political circles in India.

Gandhi appeared before a court in the western state of Gujarat on Monday to appeal and was granted bail for the duration of his appeals. He was given 30-day bail to appeal when he was convicted last month. The court set the next hearing for April 13.

A man who shares the prime minister’s surname, which is common in his home state of Gujarat, accused Gandhi of libel in a 2019 speech in which he asked: “Why do all thieves have Modi as their last name?”

Gandhi then referred to three known and unrelated Modis in the speech: a fugitive Indian diamond magnate, a cricket executive banned from the Indian Premier League, and the prime minister.

The petitioner who brought the case is a member of Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in Gujarat, but is not related to the Prime Minister or the other two Modis Gandhi invoked in his speech.

Gandhi was convicted on March 23 and expelled from Parliament the next day, prompting members of the opposition to rally to his defense, calling his ouster a new low point for India’s constitutional democracy. Gandhi was given a 30-day bail.

Under Indian law, a criminal conviction with a prison term of two years or more is grounds for expulsion from Parliament.

If Gandhi’s sentence is not stayed or overturned by a higher court, he could face jail time and likely will not be able to compete in the 2024 national elections.

Modi’s critics say India’s democracy, the world’s largest with nearly 1.4 billion people, has been in retreat since he first came to power in 2014.

They accuse his populist government of pursuing a Hindu nationalist agenda, a charge his administration has denied. The Modi government says its policies benefit all Indians.

Gandhi’s family, beginning with his great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, has had three prime ministers.

Two of them, Rahul Gandhi’s grandmother, Indira Gandhi, and father, Rajiv Gandhi, were killed.

Although Gandhi is projected to be the main challenger to the Modi government, his Indian National Congress party has suffered humiliating defeats in the last two general elections.

In a bid to woo voters, Gandhi has lashed out at Modi and his Bharatiya Janata party in recent months, accusing them of corruption and tarnishing India’s democratic credentials.


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