Opposition unites to demand Rahul return

The disqualification of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi from Lok Sabha (lower House of Parliament) has sparked strong political reactions, with the party launching mass protests across India and calling it an assault on freedom of speech.

Bloomberg reported that India's fractured opposition parties are coming together to demand that Mr Gandhi be reinstated as an MP after he was convicted last week of defaming Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Mr Gandhi was convicted in a criminal defamation case filed by the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) Purnesh Modi in a court in Surat, Gujarat.

According to media reports, the Congress leader had said in 2019: "Why do all the thieves, be it Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi or Narendra Modi, have Modi in their names?"

The 52-year-old politician was sentenced to two years in jail but immediately granted bail.

Congress MP Manish Tewari said there is an "unprecedented closure of ranks" among the opposition on Gandhi's ouster and they see it as an attempt to silence criticism of Mr Modi.

"All the opposition parties are today on the same page," Mr Tewari told Bloomberg TV.

"They are demanding for a joint parliamentary committee to go into the l'affaire Adani in the wake of the allegations made in the short-seller Hindenburg report and a rollback in the disqualification of Rahul Gandhi."

A number of opposition parties - including some opposed to the Congress - have closed ranks and backed Mr Gandhi. Key regional parties have joined the Congress for the first time to discuss strategy.

BJP described Mr Gandhi's behaviour as feudal and accused him of insulting a community. It said the law applies equally to everyone and Mr Gandhi must face the consequences.

The party accused him of being a "habitual loose cannon" with a "feudal mindset" and having little respect for marginalised communities.

Mr Gandhi has said the decision to remove him was politically motivated, characterising it as an attempt by the government to silence him from debating Mr Modi's alleged ties to Indian billionaire Gautam Adani. The tycoon and his conglomerate have denied allegations of fraud and market manipulation from a US short-seller, calling it an attack on India.

On Monday, 17 opposition parties - including firebrand leader Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress, Samajwadi Party which has a following in Uttar Pradesh, Communist Party of India and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam of the south - attended a Congress-led strategy meeting.

But it remains to be seen if the opposition, often beset by infighting, can turn Mr Gandhi's expulsion from Parliament into a call to unite ahead of national elections due next year.

Mr Gandhi faces the risk of being barred from contesting in the national polls if the higher court doesn't stay his conviction or reduce his prison time. India's laws state that those sentenced to jail for two years or more can't take part in electoral contests for six years after the completion of their sentence.

Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who is Mr Gandhi's sister, said that a reply should be given to the disqualification through the party's victory in the upcoming Karnataka elections and a committee will be formed to take further decisions.

Elections will be held in Karnataka on May 10, the results of which will indicate whether the opposition has cut into the popularity of Mr Modi's ruling party ahead of general elections next year.

Winning Karnataka - home to India's IT hub Bengaluru - would energise the Congress. But to maintain an aura of invincibility, Mr Modi also needs a win in Karnataka, which has a long history of swinging between parties.

A victory there may also help BJP - the incumbent in the state - make inroads into other southern states.

Indo-Asian News Service


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