Being the world’s largest democracy and welfare state, India’s legislators have a duty to uphold the rule of law while also looking after the citizens’ well-being. Such a scenario is visible in the cases of lawmakers and candidates who wish to run for office but have been convicted or penalised for any offence. Section 8 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 (RPA) imposes a 6-year ban for contesting elections on anybody who has been convicted for more than two years or penalised for any of the offences listed in this section.
Background for Disqualification
Before getting into the legality of disqualification, let us take a closer look at the reason for the disqualification of Rahul Gandhi and how the same has transpired. “Why do all the thieves, be it Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi, or Narendra Modi, or anyone else, have Modi in their names?” questioned the Congress politician in 2019. Following that, BJP MLA and former Gujarat Minister Purnesh Modi filed a complaint against Rahul Gandhi under Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code for his allegations and abuses, claiming that Rahul had defamed all the people with the surname ‘Modi’, while speaking at a rally in Kolar, Karnataka, ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The statements were video-graphed by the video surveillance team and video watching team, which were formally alerted by the office of the Deputy Commissioner and District Election Officer, Kolar District.
After finding him guilty under Sections 499 (Defamation) and 500 (punishment for Defamation) of the Indian Penal Code, the Court of Chief Judicial Magistrate HH Varma sentenced him to two years in prison and levied a fine of Rs15,000. However, the Court stayed his punishment and gave him bail in the case so that he could file an appeal within 30 days. It is important to note that his conviction was not suspended, that is required for a stay of disqualification.
Cases against Rahul Gandhi
- Rahul Gandhi is already out on bail in the famous National Herald case pursued by BJP leader Dr Subramanian Swamy
- On July 6, 2019, Rahul Gandhi was granted bail by a Patna court in another defamation case related to the same row as in the Surat court case. This case was filed by a BJP leader for Rahul’s comments saying “all Modis are thieves”. There is a Modi community in Bihar too.
- On July 12, 2019, Rahul Gandhi was granted bail by an Ahmedabad court in another defamation case. The case was filed by the Ahmedabad District Cooperative Bank after he had alleged that the bank was involved in a scam of swapping bank notes during demonetisation in 2016
- The Guwahati Court has also granted him bail in another defamation case filed by the RSS. The bail was granted on a bond of Rs 50,000 in September 2016.
- On July 4, 2019, Rahul was granted bail by a Mumbai court in a defamation case filed by a RSS worker. This case was filed for his remark linking activist Gauri Lankesh’s killing with the “BJP-RSS ideology”. The bail was granted on a surety amount of Rs 15,000
- In November 2016, the Bhiwandi court in Maharashtra granted bail to the Congress leader in a case filed by another RSS worker. This case is linked to Rahul Gandhi’s absurd claims that the RSS had killed Mahatma Gandhi. Even the Supreme Court had slammed him for such ‘collective’ comments and had ruled that he would have to face trial and prove his point in the court
A two-judge Supreme Court bench affirmed the constitutional validity of Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code and Sections 199(1) and 199(4) of the CrPC in Subramanian Swamy v. Union of India, 2016. The Court examined the implications of Article 19(1)(a), read with clause (2) on Sections 499 and 500 of the IPC in this decision. The bench ruled that because reputation is an integral component of Article 21, it should not be sullied only so that another individual might have their freedom. The Court reasoned that it was not a limitation that had an unavoidable effect of impeding the free flow of thinking and ideas. As a result, the Court decided that a balance between the two rights must be established. The bench noted that one’s reputation could not be sacrificed at the altar of the other’s right to free expression. Coming to the aftermath of the order given, following Rahul Gandhi’s conviction by the Magistrate’s Court in Surat, the Lok Sabha Secretariat issued a notification disqualifying him as the Lok Sabha Member from Wayanad. The debate has also centered around whether this was correct, especially since the Court suspended the sentence imposed on him, allowing him to appeal within 30 days.
According to Section 8 (3) of the Representation of the People Act, a person guilty of any offence and sentenced to jail for a term of not less than two years is ineligible. Clause 8(3) is undoubtedly invoked because Rahul Gandhi was sentenced to two years in prison in the Surat case.
To address some burning questions, let us take a trip down the memory lane when the Madras High Court postponed the sentencing of J Jayalalithaa, the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, in BR Kapur v. State of Tamil Nadu. Her attorney had claimed before the Supreme Court that the suspension of her sentence by the High Court amounted to a suspension of the convictions against her. The appellate Court ruled that it did not have the ability to suspend the sentence; instead, it may only halt the execution of the punishment until the conclusion of the appeal. The Court reasoned that the suspension of the sentence had no bearing on the fact that the offender had been convicted of a crime and sentenced to at least two years in prison. As a result, the Court concluded that Jayalalithaa’s disqualification was not removed by suspending the execution of the punishments.
Caught In His Own Web
In 2013, the Manmohan Singh Government brought in an ordinance to nullify the judgement. The ordinance allowed convicted MPs, MLAs and MLCs to keep their seats if their appeal had been “admitted by a higher court within 90 days and the conviction or sentence stayed”. The ordinance was criticised by the BJP and other political parties, which accused the Congress-led dispensation of protecting convicted criminals. Rahul, who was the vice-president of the Congress then, said the ordinance was “nonsense” and tore into the ordinance.
The Supreme Court found in both the Lily Thomas case in 2013 and the Lok Prahari case in 2018 that it was unsustainable to impose a conviction’s disqualification despite an appeal court’s stay of the conviction. In the current situation, the trial court has ordered the suspension of Rahul Gandhi’s sentence. Although the Supreme Court’s rulings were in the context of IPC Section 389, which deals with the appellate court’s jurisdiction, it is reasonable to suggest that the same principles would apply to the current case, as Rahul Gandhi’s conviction remained, resulting in his disqualification from the Lok Sabha. Needless to say, once Rahul Gandhi’s conviction in Purnesh Modi case is overturned by the appellate court, his disqualification from the Lok Sabha will be lifted. Being the world’s largest democracy, India provides certain Fundamental Rights to its citizens, while also having the authority to limit those rights to reasonable cause. While seeing this democratic structure through the lens of a commoner, it should be recognised that, while Parliamentarians have privileges in the House, when it comes to public addresses, the same yardstick should be used as that of the general populace. The law of the land doesn’t treat Rahul Gandhi or any other parliamentarian different from the common citizens of the country. That’s what the judgment and the disqualification of Rahul Gandhi are all about.