AHMEDABAD: An Indian court Thursday found opposition leader Rahul Gandhi guilty of defamation for a three-year-old campaign trail remark implying that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was a criminal.
Modi’s government has been widely accused of using the law to target and silence critics, and the case in the premier’s home state of Gujarat is one of several lodged against his chief opponent in recent years.
Gandhi, the leading face of the opposition Congress party, was sentenced to two years imprisonment but immediately granted bail after his lawyers announced their intention to appeal.
The case stemmed from a remark made during the 2019 election campaign in which the 52-year-old had asked why “all thieves have Modi as (their) common surname”.
His comments were seen as a slur against the prime minister, who went on to win the election in a landslide, and those sharing his surname.
Gandhi’s lawyer B. M. Mangukiya said his client had not meant to insult anyone.
“When the magistrate asked Gandhi what he had to say in his defence, the Congress leader said that he was fighting to expose corruption in the country,” Mangukiya told reporters outside the court.
“His comments were not meant to hurt or insult any community.”
Gandhi is the son, grandson and great-grandson of a dynasty of former Indian prime ministers, beginning with independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru.
But the scion of India’s most famous political dynasty has struggled to challenge the electoral juggernaut of Modi and its nationalist appeals to the country’s Hindu majority.
His Congress party, a once-mighty force with a proud role in ending British colonial rule 75 years ago, is now a shadow of its former self after two landslide election defeats with Gandhi at the helm.
Gandhi, who was present in court in Surat for the verdict, was greeted by supporters on his arrival. He faces at least two other defamation cases elsewhere in the country.
Gandhi is also on bail in another money laundering case that has been snaking its way through India’s glacial legal system for more than a decade. He denies any financial impropriety.