New Delhi: A day after a Surat court convicted Wayanad MP and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in a 2019 criminal defamation case, he has been disqualified as MP.
Announcing his disqualification, the Lok Sabha Secretariat in a notification said that it was effective from March 23, the day of his conviction.
The BJP dismissed the charges and termed the disqualification "lawful".
The disqualification, which will bar 52-year-old Gandhi from contesting polls for eight years unless stayed by a higher court, saw a shift in the dynamics of Opposition ranks with Trinamool Congress and Aam Aadmi Party also expressing strong support for the embattled leader, along with several other Opposition parties.
"Consequent upon his conviction by the Court of Chief Judicial Magistrate, Surat...Rahul Gandhi, Member of Lok Sabha representing the Wayanad Parliamentary Constituency of Kerala stands disqualified from the membership of Lok Sabha from the date of his conviction i.e. 23 March, 2023," the notification read.
This was Gandhi's fourth Lok Sabha term. First elected to Lok Sabha in 2004 from Amethi, he represented that constituency for two more terms. In 2019, he lost the Amethi seat to Smriti Irani but managed to win from Wayanad.
The court in Surat sentenced on Thursday Gandhi to two years in jail in a defamation case, filed on a complaint by BJP MLA Purnesh Modi for his alleged remark, "How come all thieves have Modi as the common surname?"
Following his disqualification, Gandhi would not be able to contest elections for eight years unless a higher court stays his conviction and sentence.
Hours before the notification was issued, Gandhi attended Lok Sabha proceedings in the morning session. Before the proceedings commenced, he also participated in a meeting of party MPs in the Parliament complex.
Incidentally, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, in 2013, had attempted to circumvent a Supreme Court ruling to set aside an RP Act provision under which a person sentenced to imprisonment of two years or more shall be disqualified "from the date of such conviction" and remain disqualified for another six years after serving time.
Gandhi himself had opposed the ordinance at that time and tore the ordinance in a press conference as a token of protest.
Reacting to Gandhi's disqualification, the Congress said it was "a black day for Indian democracy" and asserted that the battle will be fought both "legally and politically".
Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge said the BJP made all efforts to get him disqualified as he was speaking the truth.
"He has been removed from the House for speaking the truth, fighting for the Constitution and for people's rights," Kharge alleged.
"This was not a question of backward class, Lalit Modi and Nirav Modi are not of backward class. They are trying to build a perception that Rahul Gandhi spoke against backward class. Gandhi was putting forward the truth before the country so they were not liking it," he said in an apparent reference to BJP chief J P Nadda's remarks that Gandhi had compared OBC communities to thieves.
The BJP would be thinking that their problem is solved by ousting him from Lok Sabha but it is not so as the demand for Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) would continue to be raised, he said. Opposition leaders have been demanding a JPC probe into the Adani issue.
"We will keep fighting for protecting democracy and even if we have to go to jail, we will do so. Our people are ready to fight," Kharge said.
Congress general secretary in-charge communications Jairam Ramesh said in a tweet, "We will fight this battle both legally and politically. We will not be intimidated or silenced. Instead of a JPC into the PM-linked Adani Maha Mega Scam, Rahul Gandhi stands disqualified. Indian Democracy Om Shanti."
Congress general secretary in-charge organisation K C Venugopal also lashed out at the government and said the day Gandhi raised questions about the Adani issue against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the BJP planned a "conspiracy" to silence the voice of Gandhi.
"This is a clear case of anti-democratic, dictatorial attitude of the BJP government," Venugopal said in a video statement.
In a tweet later, he said, "Rahul Gandhi ji's disqualification is the final nail in the coffin. This is a black day for Indian democracy. It is a well-orchestrated move of the Modi government to silence his voice in Parliament. We will fight this legally and politically on every front, the truth will prevail."
Defending Gandhi's disqualification, Union Minister of State for Law and Justice S P S Baghel termed it as "lawful" and asserted that "everyone is equal before law". He also noted that a BJP MLA was also recently disqualified in Uttar Pradesh following his conviction in a criminal case.
Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi said the decision was a legal one and alleged the Congress was questioning the judiciary.
"It was a legal decision and not a call taken by the political party. It was taken by a court. The Congress should clarify who they are protesting against," he said.
Senior BJP leader Bhupender Yadav said Gandhi had got enough opportunities to explain himself, provide evidence and all rules have been followed leading to his disqualification.
The disqualification also saw many Opposition parties rallying in support of Gandhi with Trinamool Congress, AAP, the Left parties, Shiv Sena (Uddhav Thackeray), and NCP, among others, backing the former Congress chief.
West Bengal Chief Minister and TMC chief Mamata Banerjee in a tweet highlighted how the BJP is targetting leaders of the opposition.
"In PM Modi's New India, Opposition leaders have become the prime target of BJP! While BJP leaders with criminal antecedents are inducted into the cabinet, Opposition leaders are disqualified for their speeches. Today, we have witnessed a new low for our constitutional democracy," she said in a tweet.
Shiv Sena (UBT) leader, Priyanka Chaturvedi questioned the state of democracy in the country. "Vindictive and shameful action against Rahul Gandhi. This disqualification yet again proves that we are living in the times of caged democracy," she said in a tweet.
CPI-ML general secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya remarked at the alacrity of the government in taking action against Gandhi.
"The sentence against @RahulGandhi in the alleged Modi defamation case was announced yesterday and within a day he is now disqualified from the Lok Sabha! Nothing short of a surgical strike on democracy! Time for the entire opposition to rally against this unbridled emergency!" he said.
Over 30 Opposition MPs detained
Over 30 opposition MPs, including those from the Congress, were detained on Friday as they took out a protest march from Parliament House, alleging that democracy is in "danger" and demanding a JPC probe into the Adani issue.
Prominent leaders, including K C Venugopal, Adhir Chowdhury, K Suresh, Manickam Tagore, Imran Pratapgarhi and Mohammed Javed, were stopped by the police and detained at Vijay Chowk here for violating prohibitory orders, the opposition said.
"Over 30 MPs from opposition parties had to be detained for violation of Section 144 (prohibitory orders)," a senior Delhi Police officer said.
The Delhi Police said those detained have been taken to a nearby police station.
Earlier addressing the media at Vijay Chowk, several leaders, including Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, also raised the issue of Rahul Gandhi's conviction in a 2019 criminal defamation case by a Surat court and alleged that the government was targeting the opposition with cases to suppress their voices.
After a protest inside the Parliament House complex, a host of Opposition leaders from parties such as the CPI, CPI(M), Shiv Sena (Uddhav Thackeray), JD(U) and Aam Aadmi Party, marched to Vijay Chowk, holding placards like 'We demand JPC' and 'Save LIC' and a huge banner in front of them with 'Democracy in Danger' written on it.
"We're fighting for JPC into Adani issue for months. They have a majority but the BJP is scared as there's something fishy. We'll keep fighting unitedly for it," Kharge said.
He also hit out at BJP chief J P Nadda over his allegation that Rahul Gandhi compared OBC communities to thieves and accused the BJP of indulging in "caste politics".
AAP's Sanjay Singh said Gandhi's conviction shows that the government wants to finish off the opposition by slapping cases on them.
Security was stepped up around Parliament House and Vijay Chowk area to ensure that no untoward incident takes place, a senior police officer said.
(With PTI inputs)