In staying the conviction of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in a case in which he was found guilty of defaming all those who have ‘Modi’ as their surname, the Supreme Court of India has restored his membership of the Lok Sabha as well as a much-needed sense of proportion in public affairs. The Bench, headed by Justice B.R. Gavai, has noted the absence of a substantive reason for the trial court awarding Mr. Gandhi a two-year prison term, the maximum sentence for criminal defamation, for his remark “Why do all these thieves have the Modi surname?” made during the 2019 general election campaign. It also noted that had the sentence been even a day shorter, he would not have been disqualified from the Lok Sabha. The Court has obviously seen that the quantum of sentence was the same as the prison term that is required to get someone disqualified as a legislator, as well as from contesting elections for six years after completing the term. The Bench has also noted that the only reason given by the trial court in favour of the maximum sentence was that Mr. Gandhi had also been admonished by the Supreme Court in contempt proceedings in 2019, and subtly questioned its relevance by remarking that had the court admonition come prior to his speech, he would have been more careful.
A regrettable feature of the judiciary these days is that one has to go all the way to the Supreme Court for justice. In the case of Mr. Gandhi, a dodgy defamation case in Surat resulted in his being found guilty of defaming an amorphous collective of people with a particular surname and sentenced to a two-year prison term. The Lok Sabha Secretariat promptly notified his disqualification the very next day after his conviction. Even if there was an arguable case for the remarks amounting to defamation, the imposition of the maximum permissible sentence was quite perverse. It was unfortunate that both a district court in Surat and the Gujarat High Court declined to stay his conviction, an intervention that could have restored his membership, with grandiose comments to the effect that the offence was grave, that it was marked by “moral turpitude” and that he did not deserve the benefit of stay of conviction because the object of the law was to keep offenders out of public office to maintain purity in politics. The Lok Sabha Secretariat should show the same promptitude in restoring his membership and enable him to participate in parliamentary debates, especially the upcoming one on a no-confidence motion moved by the Opposition. The cause of ensuring purity in politics is certainly not served by keeping out elected representatives from Parliament on the basis of a case that rests on flimsy grounds. Indeed, such a process of disqualification actually subverts democracy.