Analysis

Conviction and Disqualification of the Gandhi Scion

Although the conviction and commensurate punishment by the court for any criminal offense and consequent disqualification from the public posts/designations of any politician under the laws of any country is not such a big deal that should invite international attention and outcry but it is happening now in case of Rahul Gandhi, the Congress leader and Wayanad (Kerala) Member of Parliament (MP) in India, who had only recently created flutters in seeking an intervention of the Western countries to rescue democracy in India in his public speeches in London and Cambridge, UK. The US State Department and German Foreign Ministry have now issued political, although guarded, statements on the prosecution and a jail term to the Gandhi scion and his consequent disqualification from the Lok Sabha membership apparently responding to the latter’s appeal in UK. An author has responsibility to be fair, logical and rational while narrating or analyzing any incident/event, community, person or place. However, patriotism and love for own nation too are valued attributes, whose significance cannot be denied. Therefore, the author proposes to analyze related developments in this sensitive case keeping both the aspects in view.

Conviction and Sentence of Gandhi Scion

Recently, a court in Gujarat state has convicted Rahul Gandhi on the charges of criminal defamation of people with “Modi” surname who, reportedly, come under the other backward classes (OBCs) community in the state. He had made certain remarks in Hindi citing certain names in an election rally in the southern state of Karnataka in Kolar district questioning how come all the thieves have Modi surname. The court adjudged him guilty of the criminal defamation under the Section 499 read with 500 of the Indian Penal Code and sentenced him two years in prison with a fine of Rs 15,000 on 23 March 2023. The aforesaid criminal defamation case was filed against him in the Surat District court by a Bhartiya Janta Party member of the legislative assembly from Gujarat, namely Purnesh Modi. The relevant extracts of the Modi scion’s slanderous speech as available in public domain is reproduced as under for the readers’ perusal.

[Hundred percent, chowkidar (janitor) is a theif (referring to PM Modi). Nirav Modi, Mehul Chowksi, Vijay Malya, Lalit Modi, Anil Ambani, Narendra Modi…it’s a group of thieves, a team of thieves, They draw money from your pocket snatch money from the farmers snatch money from small-time shopkeepers, and give it to same fifteen people (allegedly industrialist friends of PM!). … … They put money in the bank taking it out from your pocket, then you find that Nirav Modi ran away taking your money; 35,000 crore rupees, put in his pocket, taking out money from your pocket. … … Okay, a small question! How come their (sur)names, the (sur)names of all these thieves is Modi, Modi? Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi, Narendra Modi, and if you search a little more, then will find many more Modis.”]

To verify the charges, the court had relied only on the certified copy of the statement of accused obtained from the Election Commission. The court proceedings progressed at snail’s pace taking almost four years to conclude and, according to reports, the Gandhi scion was given opportunity to apologize for his slanderous accusations but he refused and simply said in the court that he had made comments to highlight corruption and it was not against any community. This obstinate and arrogant approach of the Gandhi scion has been visible in his recent public utterances too, "My name is not Savarkar, it’s Gandhi, and Gandhi never apologizes". Those who have some interest in the history and freedom struggle would also know that Vinayak Damodar Savarkar aka Veer Savarkar (28 May 1883 – 26 February 1966) was an Indian freedom fighter, ideologue, social reformer and writer. As the Indian National Congress had been traditionally opposed to Savarkar’s ideology, even the Congress leaders of the present genre too spare no opportunity to take a dig on him.

While delivering judgment, the presiding judge had also granted bail to the convicted leader suspending the sentence for thirty days to enable him to go for the appeal in the higher court against the conviction and sentence. The existing provisions in the Representation of the People Act, 1951 provide for the disqualification from the membership of the Parliament on conviction.  The Supreme Court of India in its judgment dated 10 July 2013 has further ruled that any Member of Parliament (MP), Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) or Member of a Legislative Council (MLC) who is convicted of a crime and given a minimum of two years' imprisonment loses membership of the House with immediate effect. Consequently, the Lok Sabha Secretariat issued the letter notifying disqualification of the Gandhi scion from his Lok Sabha membership from Wayanad, Kerala on the following day and, in a separate letter, the Lok Sabha Housing Committee too issued a notice asking him to vacate his official bungalow in Delhi by 22 April 2023 under rules.

Reaction from Foreign Governments and Media

While the governments and media of the Western countries, despite their own inherent systemic flaws and contradictions, habitually and constantly try to put rest of the world under trial on the fascinating concepts like democracy, secularism, freedom of speech, human rights, transparency, etc., and they have fairly good number of takers and opinionated people in the affected countries too. This practice is the legacy product of the same age old tendency of colonialism whereby many people believe that everything in the West is good and acceptable and therefore seeking certification from the Western countries is justified for their native country or place. Had this been not the case, people like the Gandhi scion, and many other people or media would not seek intervention of the Western democracies in own country’s internal matters when their own records, particularly the US and UK, on these parameters including human rights have been rather poor worldwide.

Only few weeks back, Rahul Gandhi had complained that the Western countries (democracies) are not coming forward to save the Indian democracy; hence it is not surprising that the self-proclaimed flag bearers of the democracy, freedom of speech, etc., such as the US and Germany have made it a point to intervene on the Gandhi scion’s conviction and sentence by the court in the aforesaid criminal defamation case and consequent disqualification from the Lok Sabha. On 29 March 2023, The US State Department principal deputy spokesperson, Vedant Patel stated that they are engaged with the Government of India on the shared commitment to democratic values, including the Freedom of Expression. He added that the respect for the rule of law and judicial independence is a cornerstone of any democracy, and they (the US Government) are watching Rahul Gandhi’s case in Indian Courts. Earlier Mo Khanna, an Indian origin  memberof the Democratic party, had alleged that the expulsion of Rahul Gandhi from the parliament is a deep betrayal of Gandhian philosophy and India’s deepest values.

Following the US remarks, Germany top has chosen to join the bandwagon of the Western countries and media with usual habit of making unsolicited comments on other countries’ internal matters. The German Foreign Ministry spokesperson said during a press briefing that "fundamental democratic principles" should apply in the case of Rahul Gandhi, who has been disqualified from the Lok Sabha after his conviction in a defamation case. While briefly making a reference to options available to the Gandhi scion as remedial measures, the spokesperson added that Germany expects that "standards of judicial independence and fundamental democratic principles" will apply in the case. A senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh promptly acknowledged the German intervention through a tweet “Thank you Germany Foreign Affairs Ministry and Richard Walker @rbsw for taking note of how the Democracy is being compromised in India through persecution of @RahulGandhi.” The Union Law Minister Kiren Rijiju, however, promptly responded by making a statement that India will not tolerate foreign interference in its internal matters, making it clear in a general way that the Indian Judiciary cannot be influenced by the foreign interference.

After a few days, the Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar too criticized foreign governments’ remarks in the context of Rahul Gandhi without naming any country but calling it as the “West’s Bad Habit”. He gave two probable reasons for this: First, the West has a bad habit of commenting on others as they somehow take it as some kind of God-given right; secondly, when you invite people to comment on you, they will naturally be tempted to do so (He was obviously referring to the Gandhi scion’s recent remarks in London seeking Western countries’ intervention to restore democracy in India). He further added that the Western powers will have to learn that if they keep doing this, others will also start commenting and they will certainly not like it when it happens to them. This author feels that the action of both the Surat court and Lok Sabha Secretariat in this case is in consonance with the existing law and rules and the foreign governments have no right to comment on India’s internal matters, more so because they have done this without proper research and judicious application of mind over the facts of the case.

As usual, the Western media and self-proclaimed guardians of the democracy and freedom of speech have reported the Gandhi scion’s conviction and disqualification with the coloured vision and qualifying facts and events in their premeditated and biased ways. Some prominent names are the New York Times, the Washington Post and BBC; some suggest the ouster of the opposition’s best known leader is indicative of PM Narendra Modi’s ruling party’s skill of manipulating judiciary, the others see a strongman leader deploying the courts to silence and sideline a potentially dangerous rival. One such report, citing an associate professor at the University of Michigan, rather says that it was "highly unusual" for a first-time offender like Mr Gandhi to be given the maximum possible punishment of two years' imprisonment. Another preposterous report is dubbed with a pointer that the move as it appears at the first glance has come straight out of the authoritarian playbook. To this author, the only instant thought comes perusing these remarks what stake these media groups and mediapersons have in this case and whether they have done any serious analysis by checking facts of the case in the first place before reporting!

The former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan, currently a Professor of Finance at the University of Chicago (a private university) and a well known critic of Modi Government, too has spoken against the Gandhi scion’s conviction and disqualification from Parliament. While speaking to Barkha Dutt, a journalist and habitual critic of Modi government, he lamented that the action didn’t sit well with the image we (Indians) are trying to portray internationally. He further added that India is holding key positions in the international arena such as the G20 Presidency, floods them with the idea of being great democracy and then something like this happens, which is so tragic if free speech is curtailed in India. The author would only suggest that all such critics, and India and Modi baiters must carefully go through the Gandhi scion’s remarks (irrational abuse far from facts!) verbatim reproduced above and confirm if they endorse or approve use of such words. While still in the government service, this author had come across quite a few educated Indians who earn good education at home but migrate to the Western countries for job in the educational, scientific or industrial institutions settling there. Many of these Indians are recognized and rewarded for adopting and endorsing the Western view points and narratives on their country of origin.

 

Was It First Offence of Gandhi Scion?

For the reason elaborated in the preceding paragraph, many among the Western elites and media would love to quote and capitalize on the remarks of an associate professor of the Indian origin in certain US university but this author finds nothing extraordinary in him or his remarks endorsing and defending the Gandhi scion on his preposterous remarks in the context of Modis because, for him, he is just like any other academician/teacher (i.e. Associate Professor or Reader) thousands in number in various Indian universities. Besides, let’s also consider fact that this was not the first time that the Gandhi scion has made such controversial and slanderous remarks in public about Narendra Modi. He has been frequently doing this against Narendra Modi, BJP, RSS and even Hindus at public forums. In the past, he has already landed up into trouble on many occasions for his remarks like “Chowkidar chor hai” against Prime Minister Modi and slanderous remarks such as “RSS killed Mahatma Gandhi”, “Commander-in-thief”, “Khoon ki dalali”, “Rape in India”, “Murder accused” and so on so forth.

In the context of Rafale fighter aircraft deal with France, Rahul Gandhi had publicly insulted Narendra Modi with jumlas (abusive expressions) like chowkidar chor hai (janitor is a thief) and Commander-in-thief, and repeated it time and again at different forums during 2018. Consequently, one BJP member moved the Supreme Court to initiate contempt action against the Gandhi scion for attributing his remarks to the apex court. To escape contempt proceeding against self, he had then submitted an unconditional apology before the Supreme Court for his purported remarks attributing to the apex court giving justification that his statement was made in the heat of political campaigning. Accepting his unconditional apology, the apex court had finally dropped the contempt proceedings against him in 2019 with the caution that being an important political person, he must be more careful in future. If his remarks of more recent origin at various forums are taken of any clue, the Gandhi scion does not appear to have learnt lesson from the past.

Just to cite yet another illustration, one RSS (Rashtriya Swaymsevak Sangh) member had filed a suit against the Gandhi scion following his speech in Bhiwandi, Thane (Maharashtra) in 2014 wherein he had allegedly held the RSS responsible for the murder of Mahatma Gandhi. During the court proceedings, his lawyer and then senior Congress leader Kapil Sibal had submitted to the apex court that his client never accused RSS as institution for the crime of Mahatma’s killing. The proceedings were later dropped against him; similarly, his other jumalas such as ‘Khoon ki dalali’ – a direct attack on Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the context of Army’s anti-terror operations and ‘Rape in India’ ascribing rape of girls to the BJP MLAs, though not pursued to its logical end yet brought him considerable embarrassment.  Some of the objectionable, rather abhorable, personified terms/objectives used by the Gandhi family members and other opponents against Mr Modi in the past in the garb of political discourse include mass murderer, poison farming, poisonous person, liar and fraud, biggest gunda, kasai (butcher), butcher of Gujarat, jallad (executioner), impotent, hatyara (murderer), neech admi (mean person), Chor (thief), Kayar (coward), etc.

Modi & League of Fugitive Offenders: Rationale thereof

An interesting contrast in the persona and conduct of Rahul Gandhi is that, on one hand, he has a professed ideology of love for the adversaries or enemies, a principle said to be applied by Mahatma Gandhi, which the former once displayed in the Parliament by nearly forced hugging of Prime Minister Modi on the floor of the Parliament; on the other hand, he never misses an opportunity to use perception based choicest slang and allegations against Mr Modi at every forum and occasion without any basis.  In his controversial speech leading to conviction in the Surat court and disqualification from the Lok Sabha, the Gandhi scion had put Prime Minister Modi in the league of many economic offenders and fugitives such as Nirav Modi, Mehul Chowksi, Vijay Malya, Lalit Modi as well as cronyism in respect of the country’s prominent business tycoon Anil Ambani. His allegations of cronyism were even examined by the Supreme Court and found baseless. 

To begin with, let’s take the case of Anil Ambani whose name was linked with Mr Modi for cronyism in the context the purchase of the Rafale Fighter jets from France in September 2016. The author recalls from his days as Director (Budget & Planning) in the Ministry of Defence during 1990s that the Indian Air Force was seeking 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) mid-1990s onwards for its defence preparedness. Largely owing to the lack of initiative and will on the part of the previous Congress led UPA governments that a decision could not be taken until 2014. Then at the request of the top Air Force brass, Prime Minister Modi took a bold initiative to buy 36 fighter aircrafts through an inter-governmental agreement to meet the urgent operational requirements of the Indian Air Force. Consequently, Rahul Gandhi Inc. raised a bogey of allegations with “Chowkidar chor hai” slogan with accusations of over-pricing, procedural violations, technology and commercial favourism (cronyism) to Anil Ambani’s company almost jeopardizing the agreement and compromising the defence needs. Finally, the Supreme Court of India cleared the “Rafale Deal” of all charges in a landmark judgment of December 2018 using harsh tone against the petitioners “perception of individuals cannot be basis of fishing and roving inquiry”.

Lalit Modi is an Indian businessman making more name and fame in various capacities as a cricket administrator, including as the founder, first chairman and League Commissioner of the Indian Premier League. Currently, he is under the radar of the investigating agencies since 2010 and a fugitive ever since located in London along with his family. The inconclusive charges against him include bypassing the governing council while taking decisions, non-adherence to proper processes, bid rigging, awarding contracts to his close friends, accepting kickbacks on a broadcast deal, selling franchises to members of his family, and betting and money laundering. As on date, he could not be convicted of any charges and as per the last known action of the Enforcement Directorate, the Interpol was requested in 2017 for issuance of a global arrest warrant against him, which was refused after a considerable delay. Here the point to note is that the accused had prospered and left country during the Congress led UPA regimes but the Gandhi scion has been using his name to malign Prime Minister Modi’s image.

Vijay Mallya is an Indian businessman, former politician and fugitive for the last 6-7 years despite the Government of India endeavouring hard to get him extradited by the UK government to face charges of financial crimes in India. He has been a big business tycoon having served as the ex-chairman of United Spirits, United Breweries Group as also the founder/owner of the defunct Kingfisher Airlines. He is yet another business tycoon who prospered under the earlier political regimes but his fortune shrunk and reached near insolvency by 2013. In the past, it was the BJP who made allegation against top bureaucrat(s) and Congress politicians in power to have facilitated him loan without adequate safeguards. By December 2016, the ED had attached about Rupees 96.6 billion worth of Mallya’s assets and the Government of India had secured an extradition order on alleged charges of fraud and money laundering in 2020 but owing to further appeal to the UK Supreme Court and some unspecified legal glitch, his extradition from UK is yet to materialize. Mehul Choksi and Nirav Modi are close relatives who were operating in the gem and jewellery business. Both of them are fugitive and now wanted by the Indian investigating authorities and judiciary on the charges of criminal conspiracy, criminal breach of trust, cheating and dishonesty, corruption and money laundering.

One common feature about the aforesaid fugitives is that they had phenomenal rise in their business during previous political regimes apparently with the collusion of bank officials, bureaucrats and politicians, which could be revealed only if they are repatriated to India and investigation agencies get free hand to question and pursue trail of the money. Of course, wherever possible, majority of their assets have already been attached by the enforcement agencies. Evidently, their businesses prospered committing various irregularities in previous political regimes but cases have come to light or being pursued after 2014 owing to zero tolerance policy of the present Modi government towards the corruption and corrupt people. The most ironical (ridiculous) part of the Gandhi scion’s allegations linking their names with Narendra Modi is that a prime minister who has actually left no stone unturned to check corruption in the government and public life is put in the league of the most corrupt fugitives without any sustainable evidence. It is true that the Gandhi scion has not been granted any special consideration or leniency by the judiciary and government under the extant rules and law of the land in the instant case. What the foreign governments and ultra-liberal Indians also need to learn is that action taken in case of the Congress leader is India’s internal matter and the US, Germany or, for that matter, any other foreign government is not required to comment or watch it, more so without knowing full facts.

The Situation Could Have Been Averted

Perhaps corruption and politics go together worldwide and India is no exception to this unethical and unlawful matrimony and if available data are of any clues, the politicians of the Congress and other Socialist parties have been traditionally more prone to such practices in the past. In fact, some opposition leaders have even opined that the law should have separate provision/yardsticks to deal with Gandhi family members’ case. The Supreme Court adjudged Section 8 (4) of the Representation of the People Act (RPA), 1951 as unconstitutional in July 2013 and passed an order that a member of the Parliament or state assemblies must be immediately disqualified when convicted by a court for any criminal offence with a jail term of two years or more. This section earlier provided protection to the convicted legislatures from disqualification provided they made an appeal to the higher court within the three months of conviction and sentence. Following this judgment, a Rajya Sabha member of the Congress, Rasheed Masood, was first affected politician convicted with a jail term of four years in 2013.

Another crucial ally of the Congress, Lalu Prasad Yadav, head of the Rashtriya Janta Dal, too was running a risk of similar nemesis in multiple court cases following his involvement in the Fodder Scam of the Bihar state. These developments being immediate cause, the Congress led UPA government came out with an Ordinance to overrule the Supreme Court verdict claiming agreement among all the political parties; however, the BJP denied to have consented to the said Ordinance. The Ordinance inter alia provided a reprieve to the convicted lawmakers to retain their seats in Parliament or state assemblies provided they made an appeal to a higher court within three months of conviction and sentence. Besides, according to reports, the condition of the sentence of two years or more was also modified to five years or more to give more comfort to the law makers. However, while the Congress party was engaged into a press conference in September 2013 on the subject at the Press Club of India in Delhi, Rahul Gandhi made a dramatic entry and surprised everyone in the government and people present in the press conference.

During his brief presence, gist of what all he stated without fielding any questions from the audience was that it was high time for all political parties including the Congress to retrospect and stop making such compromises if they really wanted to fight corruption: “I tell you what my opinion on the Ordinance is that it is complete nonsense. It should be torn up and thrown away. That’s my opinion.” Following his remarks, he indeed torn off a copy of the Ordinance and quickly left the conference venue. To cut the long story short, after his dramatic public appearance and ibid statement, the Ordinance already cleared was indeed withdrawn. The episode also convincingly established that, with or without any post in the government and party, the members of the Nehru-Gandhi family are supreme in the Congress, including the prime minister and party president. Ironically, this has been perhaps only known good work by him, albeit in an unethical and arrogant manner, which has now gone against him. It would have been appropriate to express his reservations and corrective measure at the proper party forum rather than publicly embarrassing own prime minister and government. Had the law thus enacted by the Congress government in 2013 was not withdrawn, the Gandhi scion would have easily escaped his current disqualification from the Parliament.

Besides, the previous experience in many contempt petitions and political defamation cases suggest that when the offender formally expresses regret for his (or her) unacceptable conduct, usually both the petitioner(s) and court are satisfied and the case is closed. In the Gandhi scion’s own case of the contempt petition in the Supreme Court about his derogatory jibe of ‘Chowkidar chor hai’ about Prime Minister Modi in 2018, the case was closed after he offered unconditional apology to the apex court. The speech made by Rahul Gandhi during a political campaign in Kolar district of Karnataka in April 2019 were produced in the court which were video graphed by the video surveillance team and video viewing team duly notified by the office of Deputy Commissioner and District Election Officer. According to reports, the court had given opportunity to him to apologize for his defamatory remarks “why all thieves share the Modi surname” but Gandhi scion took a stand that there was no malafide intention on his part when he made the statement in question. Had he opted to offer regrets for his remarks, it was more likely that either the case would have been dropped or ended up with the minimum sentence ruling out the disqualification from Lok Sabha membership.

Conclusion

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s shine and tough stand against corruption has earned him many enemies so much so that the majority of the opposition leaders have united against him on this sensitive issue despite serious ideological differences among themselves – the Gandhi scion being only one.  Many of them are fearful of being behind the bars for the same reason, sooner or later, and seriously want to get rid of him at all cost. Baseless charges made against Modi by opposition every off and on are part of this desire and strategy only but, like the Supreme Court observed in the context of the Rafale deal, mere perception of individuals cannot be the basis of result-oriented fishing and roving inquiry. The aforesaid position is further vindicated with the Supreme Court’s dismissal of the petition of the Congress and thirteen other political parties on 5 April 2023 about the alleged misuse of the ED and CBI to target political opponents. The apex court made it clear to the applicants that they are not entitled to special treatment with higher immunity; instead, they should seek their answer in the political space.

Accompanied with the Congress chief ministers of three states and many other big leaders, the Gandhi scion has filed his appeal against conviction in the Surat sessions court on 4 April 2023 and with his move a stage has also been set up for a long drawn legal and political battle on the subject. According to a PTI report, the appeal terms his conviction erroneous and patently perverse, and that the trial court has treated him harshly after being overwhelmingly influenced by his status as MP. Now whether he insulted (defamed) Modis as an OBC community or not is indeed a larger issue with political connotations (BJP would certainly be keen to encash) that will ultimately be decided by the judiciary but the position that his remarks suo moto go against the people with Modi surname is self-validated without any further need of evidence. The Gandhi family has no dearth of advisors with top lawyers of the country in the Congress party but it still remains a mystery why in the instant case he was not given proper advice because it is beyond doubt that he could have easily escaped conviction and sentence, and consequent nemesis, merely by expressing regret in the court for his awful remarks.

08-Apr-2023

More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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