Rahul Gandhi sentenced to two years in prison over Modi remarks

Rahul Gandhi has been sentenced to two years in jail for remarks he made about Narendra Modi by a court in the prime minister’s home state of Gujarat, raising the temperature of Indian politics a year ahead of a national election.

The court in Surat sentenced Gandhi, 52, the best-known figure in the Congress party that dominated Indian politics for decades, for comments he made in a 2019 speech in which he asked “why all thieves have the name Modi, Modi, Modi”.

The court granted Gandhi bail and suspended the sentence for 30 days to give him time to appeal.

Modi’s dominant Bharatiya Janata party will face voters in April and May 2024 in which the prime minister will be seeking a third term in office.

Gandhi, who holds no formal position in the party but is its most well-known personality, has gone on the attack against Modi in recent weeks over his ties to Gautam Adani, the industrialist whose group is facing unprecedented scrutiny after a scathing attack by short seller Hindenburg Research.

Amit Malviya, who heads the BJP’s information and technology department, said on Thursday that Gandhi was “flippant and dangerous” and accused him of “deriding India and Indians”.

The ruling party has also accused Gandhi of defaming India on a trip to the UK this month in which the opposition figure held high-profile talks at Cambridge university and Chatham House.

“The cowardly, authoritarian BJP government has been shaken by Rahul Gandhi and the opposition because we are exposing their black deeds,” Mallikarjun Kharge, the Congress party’s president, said in a tweet.

Analysts give Congress slim odds of winning next year’s election. Many in India hold Gandhi, a member of the fourth generation of the family that ruled India for decades, responsible for feckless leadership and corruption that contributed to its defeats by the BJP in 2014 and 2019.

He quit as the Congress party’s president after the 2019 election. His 76-year-old mother Sonia Gandhi took on the role till last year, when the party appointed Kharge to the post.

However, some observers said Gandhi had made a slow but discernible political comeback in recent months, seizing on the Adani affair and economic issues such as India’s stubbornly high unemployment rate as a cudgel against Modi.

Hindenburg’s short seller attack was published shortly after he completed a 4,000km Bharat Jodo Yatra, or “Unite India March”, a trek from the country’s southern tip to Kashmir, in which thousands joined him along the route.

“It was a stroke of good fortune for Gandhi that the Adani scandal broke during the yatra,” said Asim Ali, an independent political analyst. “But in terms of capitalising on it, I’m not sure it’s going to be an easy task.” 

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