Indian opposition dealt major blow as parliament bars Congress leader Gandhi
- Opposition accuse Modi govt of using law to stymie top leader
- Protest launched against Gandhi's disqualification
- Congress party to challenge Gandhi's conviction
- Gandhi says he is fighting for the voice of India
NEW DELHI, March 24 (Reuters) - India's opposition Congress party suffered a major blow on Friday when parliament disqualified its leader, Rahul Gandhi, a day after a court convicted him of defamation for comments that many deemed insulting to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Gandhi "stands disqualified from the membership of Lok Sabha from the date of his conviction", the lower house of parliament said in a notice, using its Indian name.
Gandhi, 52, was convicted and sentenced to prison for two years in the western state of Gujarat on Thursday after he was found guilty of defamation in connection with a 2019 speech in which he referred to thieves as having the surname Modi.
He is due to appeal against the verdict in a district court in Gujarat, also Modi's home state.
"I am fighting for the voice of India, I am ready to pay any cost," Gandhi tweeted hours after his disqualification.
Gandhi made the thieves comment while campaigning ahead of the last general election in which Modi and his ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept back to power.
The court case was filed by BJP member Purnesh Modi, who focused on a comment Gandhi made in the 2019 speech when referring to two fugitive businessmen, both surnamed Modi.
"How come all thieves have the name Modi?," Gandhi had asked.
The magistrate said a two-year jail term was justified because "awarding a lighter sentence to the accused would send a wrong message to people".
The same court also immediately granted Gandhi bail and suspended the sentence by a month. But under the constitution and election laws, a lawmaker convicted by a court loses their place in parliament.
Gandhi, the scion of a dynasty that has given India three prime ministers, marched across India this year to revive the political fortunes of Congress.
Some of Gandhi's allies said the court ruling was politically motivated. A close aide said the leader would abide by the order and did not enter parliament on Friday during house proceedings.
Gandhi was at the official residence of his mother, Sonia Gandhi, who is the longest serving president of the Congress party, at the time the parliament notice became public, said two Congress lawmakers.
"He will have to vacate his official residence but every MP gets 30 days to relocate," said one Congress lawmaker, adding that legal experts in the party were preparing to file an appeal in a higher court.
Several Congress lawmakers and leaders of regional opposition parties said Gandhi was being punished for speaking the truth and safeguarding democracy.
"We will fight against the injustice legally and politically," said Jairam Ramesh, a Congress lawmaker.
Party members staged protests against Gandhi's disqualification in the eastern and northern parts of the country and plan to continue their demonstrations across India.
The once-dominant Congress controls less than 10% of the elected seats in parliament's lower house and has been decimated by the BJP in two successive general elections, most recently in 2019 under Gandhi's leadership.
A Congress party lawmaker from West Bengal state, Pradip Bhattacharya, said the BJP saw Gandhi as a threat.
"The BJP is fearful about the rise of Rahul Gandhi and he poses a direct threat to the Modi government," he said, adding that protests would intensify.
BJP president J.P. Nadda dismissed that accusation, saying Gandhi had insulted Indians who happen to share the same surname as the prime minister.
"It is one thing to question government regarding the policies, that would be considered a healthy debate, but clearly the Congress has never followed such rules," he told Reuters.
India's next general election is due by mid-2024.
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