Top Court in India Suspends Rahul Gandhi’s Conviction

(Bloomberg) -- India’s top court stayed Rahul Gandhi’s conviction in a high-stakes defamation case, enabling the opposition leader to seek his reinstatement as a lawmaker and to contest general elections due next year.

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In their judgment, a three-person Supreme Court bench said that Gandhi’s conviction impacts not only him, but also “the rights of the electorate who have elected him to represent their constituency.”

Gandhi, 53, the leader of the main opposition Congress party, was sentenced to two years in jail by a lower court for allegedly making defamatory remarks about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surname during an election rally in 2019.

The conviction disqualified Gandhi from serving in Parliament and jeopardized his ability to contest elections for six years after being released from jail. A second court suspended his jail term until Gandhi’s appeal is decided.

In explaining Friday’s ruling, the Supreme Court said the lower court had failed to justify why it imposed such a strident sentence on Gandhi. Many of Modi’s opponents see the case against the Congress leader as politically motivated.

“Rahul Gandhi’s stay of conviction is a big shot in the arm of Congress, which will now feel more emboldened to counter the challenges from Modi’s party,” said Satish Misra, a New Delhi-based independent political analyst.

Even so, Gandhi’s legal troubles aren’t over. Though the Supreme Court’s verdict paves the way for his reinstatement in Parliament, a court in the state of Gujarat still has to rule on the merits of the defamation case.

Gandhi has positioned himself as a challenger to Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party. A recent victory for Congress in local elections in the southern state of Karnataka has given Gandhi’s party a much needed boost.

Gandhi’s disqualification from Parliament and elections has become a major political flash point. More than two dozen opposition parties have united with Congress and vowed to fight together to defeat Modi in 2024 national elections.

--With assistance from Abhijit Roy Chowdhury.

(Updates with analyst quote and details about ruling)

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