Knives Out


By India Legal Bureau

Within 24 hours of a Surat court convicting Congress leader Rahul Gandhi for two years in a 2019 criminal defamation case, the Lok Sabha Secretariat on March 24 disqualified the Congress’ former president from the lower house because of his conviction in the 2019 criminal defamation case.

Rahul Gandhi has been a member of the lower house representing the Wayanad parliamentary constituency of Kerala. The Secretariat said in a notification: “Rahul stands disqualified from the membership of Lok Sabha from the date of his conviction (March 23, 2023) in terms of the provisions of Article 102(1)(e) of the Constitution of India read with Section 8 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951.”

While senior Congress leader Manish Tewari called the decision erroneous, this was, anyway, a massive setback for the Congress, building up to the 2024 general elections. “Lok Sabha secretariat cannot disqualify an MP. The President has to do it in consultation with the Election Commission,” said Tewari.

As of writing this, the Congress has not moved either the sessions court or even the Supreme Court to challenge the ban. The legal situation is that if the higher court stays the lower court order, the dismissal order of Rahul Gandhi’s Lok Sabha membership also stands stayed.

In case the higher court hears the case and reduces the sentence from two years to less than that, then even in that case Rahul gets away through the legal loophole. Legal luminaries, who have been interviewed in the media, have said that the order was concomitant with the “crime”, though whether the two-year sentence is too high has to be decided.

What has to come to court is a plea filed before the Supreme Court by a Kerala-based activist Aabha Muralidharan, which challenges the automatic disqualification of representatives of elected legislative bodies, upon being convicted of any offence and sentenced to imprisonment for not less than two years as per Section 8(3) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951.

While stating that the immediate reason for approaching the Court is the recent development of Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification, the petition argues that a blanket disqualification, irrespective of the nature, gravity and seriousness of the offences is against the principles of natural justice.

Tharoor "Stunned"

Meanwhile, Shashi Tharoor, another senior Congress MP, tweeted: “It bodes ill for democracy. I’m stunned by this action and by its rapidity, within 24 hours of the court verdict and while an appeal was known to be in process. This is politics with the gloves off and it bodes ill for our democracy.”

The lower court has given Rahul 30 days to apply in a higher court, which means only the punishment part of the order has been stayed. The conviction part of the order started immediately after the judge signed on the order. To that extent, the parliament secretariat has followed the protocol.

On March 23, the local court in the Surat district of Gujarat convicted Rahul Gandhi in a defamation case for his alleged remarks against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in April 2019. The court of Chief Judicial Magistrate HH Varma sentenced him to two years in jail and also imposed a fine of Rs 15,000 after finding him guilty under Sections 499 (defamation) and 500 (punishment for defamation) IPC.

Rahul, however, secured conditional bail in the case, with the court granting a month’s time to the Wayanad MP so that he can file an appeal against the order.

Rahul’s conviction under Sections 499 and 500 of the IPC, both of which warrant a maximum sentence of two years, led to his disqualification from parliament, as per a Supreme Court order of 2013. On July 10, 2013, the Supreme Court had ruled that any MP, MLA, or MLC convicted for a crime and given a minimum two years’ imprisonment would lose membership of the House with immediate effect. This order is just two years.

The Supreme Court bench of Justice AK Patnaik and Justice SJ Mukhopadhaya had further declared as unconstitutional Section 8 (4) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, which granted elected representatives 90 days to challenge their conviction.

Background

During a rally at Kolar in Karnataka ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Rahul Gandhi had allegedly said, “Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi, Narendra Modi. How come all the thieves have Modi as the common surname?”

BJP MLA and former Gujarat minister Purnesh Modi had filed a defamation suit against Rahul Gandhi in Surat, alleging the remark had defamed the entire Modi community. On the basis of his complaint, a case was registered against Rahul Gandhi at a police station in Surat district.

The Gujarat High Court had vacated the stay on trial in the case pursuant to which the trial resumed.