India’s top court on Friday stayed Rahul Gandhi’s defamation conviction, offering a crucial reprieve for the embattled former chair of the country’s main opposition party who was disqualified as a lawmaker following a trial he maintained was politically motivated.
The Supreme Court order paves the way for Parliament to reinstate Gandhi’s lawmaker status and let his case be decided on merits in trial, allowing him to potentially challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the 2024 election.
Gandhi’s lawyer, KC Kaushik, confirmed the verdict to the Press Trust of India, one of India’s largest news agencies, and said parliament should restore his lawmaker’s status “as fast as it was revoked.”
Gandhi, the former Indian National Congress leader, was found guilty of defamation and given a two-year jail sentence in March, relating to a speech he made during an election campaign in 2019.
Gandhi’s Congress party decried the conviction, accusing Modi of using the courts as a way to expel him from parliament and silence his critics.
Since then, the opposition leader has been in and out of courtrooms, fighting for a suspension of his sentence that would allow him to be reinstated as a lawmaker.
Under Indian law, a member of parliament can be disqualified for election offenses including “promoting enmity between two groups,” bribery, undue influence, or personation – the act of voting while posing as another voter.
If a lawmaker is convicted of any other offense and sentenced to a period of two years or more, they can also be disqualified.
Speaking to the Press Trust of India after the verdict, Gandhi’s lawyer, K.C. Kaushik, said parliament should restore his lawmaker’s status “as fast as it was revoked.”
Gandhi was found guilty of defamation by a court in western state of Gujarat, for a speech he made in 2019, in which he referred to thieves as having the same surname as Modi. Gujarat is the state Modi used to run before becoming prime minister.
The subsequent disqualification threatened to neuter one of the few opposition figures that had the kind of name recognition to challenge Modi.
Gandhi walked 3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles) across India last year to meet voters and revive interest in the Congress – a once powerful party that has in recent years struggled to win votes.
In the first significant gauge of voter sentiment since that experiment, the Congress unseated the BJP in crucial state elections in southwest Karnataka state.
Last month, the Congress and several other opposition parties joined hands to form an alliance, known as INDIA, in a bid to unseat Modi in next year’s election.
However, while the BJP can bank on the popularity of Modi, the INDIA alliance has not yet put forward a leader to challenge him next year. Gandhi is one of the few opposition figures considered to have the kind of star power and name 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 leader, and his great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, was the country’s founding Prime Minister.
His grandmother was assassinated while in office, and his father was killed by a bomb blast while he was campaigning in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.