AHMEDABAD, India -
An Indian court sentenced opposition leader Rahul Gandhi on Thursday to two years in jail on charges of defamation for a 2019 speech in which he referred to thieves as having the surname Modi.
Gandhi will appeal against the order in a higher court, but it is potentially a big blow for his Congress party ahead of the 2024 general election. The judgment was passed by a court in the city of Surat, located in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state of Gujarat.
Gandhi, the 52-year-old scion of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, was present at the Surat court, which gave him bail immediately and suspended the sentence for a month.
An adviser to the federal government, Kanchan Gupta, said Gandhi, a member of the lower house of parliament, could face immediate disqualification from the legislature following the conviction, in line with a 2013 order of the country's highest court.
Any disqualification for Gandhi, a former Congress president and its star campaigner, could complicate the party's chances at the next general election, where the BJP is widely expected to win a third straight term.
"The court has found Rahul Gandhi’s comment to be defamatory," said Ketan Reshamwala, an advocate for complainant Purnesh Modi, a Gujarat lawmaker from the prime minister's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). "He has been sentenced to two years in jail."
In the speech ahead of the last general election in 2019, Gandhi referred to the prime minister and two fugitive Indian businessmen, all surnamed Modi, while talking about alleged high-level corruption in the country.
On Thursday, Gandhi told the court that his comment was not against any community.
Gandhi's party said the case against him was brought by a "cowardly and dictatorial" BJP government because he was "exposing their dark deeds".
"The Modi government is a victim of political bankruptcy", Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge said on Twitter. "We will appeal in the higher court."
Congress spokesperson Supriya Shrinate said the party had "all legal recourse available to us and we will use them".
"Hopefully, the law of the land will prevail," she said.
Gandhi won support from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that rules Delhi and two of whose top leaders are in jail on what they call trumped-up charges.
"A conspiracy is being hatched to eliminate non-BJP leaders and parties by prosecuting them," AAP chief and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal wrote on Twitter.
"We have differences with the Congress, but it is not right to implicate Rahul Gandhi in a defamation case like this. It is the job of the public and the opposition to ask questions. We respect the court but disagree with the decision."
Gandhi's once-dominant Congress controls less than 10% of the elected seats in parliament's lower house and lost badly to the BJP in the last two general elections.
Modi remains India's most popular politician by a substantial margin and is widely expected to win a third victory at the election next year. (Reporting by Sumit Khanna in Ahmedabad, Shilpa Jamkhandikar in Mumbai and Arpan Chaturvedi in New Delhi; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, William Maclean)