NEW DELHI (AP) — India’s top opposition leader and fierce critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi was expelled from Parliament Friday, a day after a court convicted him of defamation and sentenced him to two years in prison for mocking the surname Modi in an election speech.
The actions against Rahul Gandhi, the great-grandson of India’s first prime minister, were widely condemned by opponents of Modi as the latest assaults against democracy and free speech by a ruling government seeking to crush dissent. Removing Gandhi from politics delivered a major blow to the opposition party he led ahead of next year’s national elections.
A local court from Modi’s home state of Gujarat convicted Gandhi on Thursday for a 2019 speech in which he asked, “Why do all thieves have Modi as their surname?” Gandhi then referred to three well-known and unrelated Modis in the speech: a fugitive Indian diamond tycoon, a cricket executive banned from the Indian Premier League tournament and the prime minister.
Under Indian law, a criminal conviction and prison sentence of two years or more are grounds for expulsion from Parliament, but Gandhi is out on bail for 30 days and plans to appeal.
Opposition lawmakers rallied to his defense on Friday, calling his expulsion a new low for India’s constitutional democracy.
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 preoccupying itself with pursuing a Hindu nationalist agenda, a charge his administration has denied.
“I am fighting for the voice of this country. I am ready to pay any price,” Gandhi, 52, wrote on Twitter.
Gandhi’s family, starting with his great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, has produced three prime ministers. Two of them — his grandmother Indira Gandhi and father, Rajiv Gandhi — were assassinated in office.
Gandhi has projected himself as the main challenger to the Modi government, but his Indian National Congress party has fared poorly during the last two general elections. He has been trying to woo voters in recent months by raising issues of corruption and accusing the Modi government of tarnishing India’s reputation for democracy.
Late last year Gandhi led a popular “unity march” across wide swaths of India, rallying crowds against the Modi government and the Hindu nationalism that has surged under his leadership.
Opponents blame Modi’s political party for rising hate speech and violence against Muslims and other minorities in recent years. Modi’s power has coincided with increasing assaults on the press and free speech, the jailing of activists and a crackdown on dissent.
Modi’s party has denied the accusations and his supporters say the tea seller’s son from Gujarat state has improved the nation’s standing.
Gandhi has also attacked the government over Modi’s proximity to business tycoon Gautam Adani, who in January was accused by an American research and investment firm betting against his company of engaging in fraud and stock-price manipulation. Before his expulsion, Gandhi had called for an investigation into Adani’s businesses, whose market value has plummeted by tens of billions of dollars. Modi’s party say he has no links with Adani.
If Gandhi’s conviction is not suspended or overturned by a higher court, he faces the risk of not being able to contest national elections in 2024, although some analysts say an eventual return to politics is possible.
“This could actually also provide an impetus for the opposition to finally sink their differences and come together in a united fight against Modi,” said Arti Jerath, a political commentator.
Gandhi’s political party said the conviction, which they plan to appeal, was “cowardly and dictatorial” and leaders warned that his expulsion could do long-term damage to the country.
“This is politics with the gloves off and it bodes ill for our democracy,” said Shashi Tharoor, a lawmaker from Gandhi’s party.
Modi’s critics point to his party’s attacks against opposition leaders, rights groups and media outlets critical of the government.
Last month India’s tax officials raided BBC offices in New Delhi and Mumbai weeks after it aired a documentary critical of Modi. The documentary examined his role in 2002 anti-Muslim riots in the western state of Gujarat, where he was chief minister at the time. More than 1,000 people were killed in the violence.
Modi has denied allegations that authorities under his watch allowed and even encouraged the bloodshed, and the Supreme Court said it found no evidence to prosecute him.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a political analyst, said the ruling party had become increasingly angered by Gandhi’s corruption accusations and that his line of attack against the Adani Group was “proving too much for the governing party.”
Gandhi’s expulsion also came after fourteen political parties filed a petition to India’s top court alleging that Modi’s government was engaged in politically motivated financial-crime investigations of opposition leaders. The Supreme Court said it will take up the petition in the first week of April.