The former leader of India’s main opposition political party has been disqualified as a lawmaker, a day after he was handed a two-year jail sentence for defamation, in a ruling his supporters say is politically motivated.
India’s lower house, the Lok Sabha, said in a statement that Gandhi “stands disqualified from the membership,” citing his recent conviction.
It is the second setback in as many days for India’s opposition Congress party and could neuter one of the few figures that has the kind of star power and name recognition to challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
On Thursday, 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.
The 52-year-old politician was granted bail, according to his Congress party, which decried his conviction, accusing Modi of using the courts to silence his critics.
“Everyone knows that Rahul Gandhi… is raising his voice against the dictator. He’s showing the courage to call out what is wrong,” the party said in a statement on Thursday.
That conviction was the first time he had been found guilty and the verdict opened up an opportunity for his opponents, particularly within Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Under Indian law, a member of parliament can be disqualified for offenses such as “promoting enmity between two groups, bribery and undue influence or personation at an election.”
While this does not apply to defamation, if a lawmaker is convicted for any other offense and sentenced for a period of two years or more, they can also be disqualified.
“He (Gandhi) stands convicted and as per law conviction leads to automatic disqualification. The Congress knows this,” BJP spokesperson Amit Malviya told CNN affiliate News18.
Following his disqualification Gandhi will be unable to contest future elections unless his sentence is either stayed or he is acquitted.
“We will fight this battle both legally and politically. We will not be intimidated or silenced,” senior Congress politician Jairam Ramesh tweeted.
Gandhi stood against Modi to contest the country’s top seat in the 2019 general election but he lost heavily.
He subsequently stepped down as Congress’ president but remains an influential figure within the party.
He is the son of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
His grandmother Indira 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.