India’s highest court halts Rahul Gandhi’s conviction, allowing his return as a lawmaker before elections.

On January 6, 2023, Rahul Gandhi, the former leader of India’s primary opposition party, the Congress party, addressed a gathering at a public rally during the ongoing Bharat Jodo Yatra (Unite India March) in Panipat, India.

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In a significant development, India’s top court issued an order on a Friday that suspended Rahul Gandhi’s defamation conviction. This legal reprieve proved crucial for the embattled former chair of India’s main opposition party, who had been disqualified as a lawmaker due to a trial he contended was driven by political motives.

The Supreme Court’s decision cleared the path for the Parliament to restore Rahul Gandhi’s status as a lawmaker, enabling his case to be evaluated on its merits during the trial. This decision held the potential of allowing him to challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the upcoming 2024 elections.

Gandhi’s attorney, KC Kaushik, confirmed the court’s verdict to the Press Trust of India, a leading news agency in the country, emphasizing that the parliament should reinstate his lawmaker position “as fast as it was revoked.”

Rahul Gandhi, formerly the leader of the Indian National Congress, had been found guilty of defamation and subsequently sentenced to a two-year jail term in March. The conviction stemmed from a speech he delivered during an election campaign in 2019.

The Congress party, led by Gandhi, strongly criticized his conviction, accusing Prime Minister Modi of exploiting the legal system to expel him from the parliament and stifle his dissenting voice.

Following the conviction, Gandhi found himself entangled in a series of legal battles, striving to obtain a suspension of his sentence in order to regain his status as a lawmaker.

As per Indian law, a parliament member can face disqualification for election-related offenses such as inciting enmity between groups, bribery, undue influence, or impersonation (voting as someone else). Additionally, lawmakers convicted of other offenses and sentenced to two or more years in prison can also face disqualification.

Speaking to the Press Trust of India after the court’s decision, Gandhi’s lawyer, K.C. Kaushik, reiterated the urgency for the parliament to restore Gandhi’s status as a lawmaker “as fast as it was revoked.”

Rahul Gandhi’s defamation conviction was handed down by a court in the state of Gujarat, where he referred to thieves as sharing the same surname as Prime Minister Modi during a speech in 2019. Gujarat was the state that Modi governed before becoming the Prime Minister.

This disqualification raised concerns about sidelining one of the few opposition figures with the recognition and influence to challenge Modi.

In a bid to reengage with voters and rejuvenate the Congress party, which had struggled in recent years to secure votes, Gandhi embarked on a 3,500-kilometer (2,175-mile) journey across India the previous year.

The first significant reflection of voter sentiment following this endeavor was seen when the Congress party ousted the BJP in important state elections in the southwestern state of Karnataka.

In the preceding month, the Congress party and several other opposition groups formed a coalition known as INDIA, aimed at dethroning Modi in the upcoming year’s election.

While the BJP could rely on Modi’s popularity, the INDIA coalition had yet to nominate a leader to challenge him. Rahul Gandhi was among the few opposition figures perceived to possess the charisma and recognition to stand against Modi in a general election.

He is the son of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. His grandmother, Indira Gandhi, was India’s first female Prime Minister, and his great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, served as the country’s inaugural Prime Minister. Tragedy has struck his family, with his grandmother being assassinated while in office, and his father killed in a bomb blast during a campaign in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

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