BACKDROP OF THE EVENT
Rahul Gandhi, the Congress party stalwart, was found guilty in a criminal defamation suit against him over the inappropriate statements made him regarding the surname ‘Modi.’ Resultantly, he became disqualified as an M.P. and he had to surrender his diplomatic passport. Then he applied for an ordinary passport for 10 years but the court agreed to give a NOC for a passport for 3 years only.
However, this decision of the court was not taken well by the BJP stalwart Subramaniam Swamy who claimed that this decision of the court would allow the congress leader to flee the country. Swamy has instituted a case against Gandhi namely the national herald case therefore he was apprehensive that the decision may hamper the probe in the said case.
THE CRIMINAL DEFAMATION CASE OVER THE COMMENTS ON THE SURNAME ‘MODI’
In March 2023, Rahul Gandhi, leader of the Indian National Congress party, was convicted in a criminal defamation case filed against him by Purnesh Modi, a member of the Gujarat Legislative Assembly, in 2019. The case was related to Gandhi’s comments made during a speech in which he allegedly accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of being “a thief”. The Chief Judicial Magistrate H.H. Varma in Surat sentenced Gandhi to two years in prison but granted him bail and gave him a month to appeal against the judgement.
The judgement has been seen as a huge blow to the Congress party, which has been grappling with a leadership crisis and electoral setbacks in recent years. Gandhi’s legal team immediately filed an appeal against the judgement, which was subsequently admitted by the Surat court in April 2023. While the appeal is ongoing, Gandhi is currently out on bail. The case has once again brought to the forefront the issue of criminal defamation in India, which has been a contentious issue for some time.
Critics of the law argue that it is a tool used by the powerful to stifle dissent and free speech, while others argue that it is necessary to protect the reputation and dignity of individuals. In any case, the verdict against Rahul Gandhi is significant as it is one of the few instances in which a powerful political leader has been convicted in a criminal defamation case. It also raises questions about the state of Indian democracy and the extent to which the judiciary can remain independent and impartial in the face of political pressure.
Regardless of the outcome of the appeal, the case will likely have far-reaching implications for Indian politics and the country’s legal system. It remains to be seen how it will affect Rahul Gandhi’s political career and the fortunes of the Congress party, which has been struggling to regain its footing after a series of electoral setbacks in recent years.
THE PARTICULARS OF THE NATIONAL HERALD CASE AGAINST THE STALWARTS OF CONGRESS PARTY
In 2012, BJP leader Subramanian Swamy brought a case against Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi, accusing them of using Congress party funds to acquire Associated Journals Limited (AJL) and cheating and breaching trust in the AJL-Young Indian (YI) case. According to Subramanian Swamy, Rahul and Sonia Gandhi were directors of Young Indian (YI), with a 38% stake each, while the remaining stake was held by Motilal Vora and Oscar Fernandes. YI acquired AJL, the owner of National Herald, debt-free for Rs 50 lakhs. The valuation of the AJL assets, including real estate, amounted to over Rs 2,000 crores.
Subsequently, the Congress party gave a loan of Rs. 90.25 crores to AJL, which was later converted into equity shares, and YI became the majority shareholder of AJL. The accusations made by Swamy led to the commencement of a trial against the Gandhis. In 2015, the Delhi High Court dismissed the Gandhis’ petitions to quash the summons issued to them by a trial court. The Congress party termed the case as a political vendetta by the BJP government. In 2018, the Delhi High Court ruled that the trials against Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, and 3 others would proceed, which was challenged by them in the Supreme Court.
However, the Supreme Court refused to intervene, and the trial court continued to hear the case. In December 2020, the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal upheld a tax demand of Rs 250 crore on Young Indian, and the Congress party blamed the BJP for targeting the Gandhis through agencies such as the Enforcement Directorate and the Income Tax Department.
In June 2021, Rahul Gandhi was summoned by the Enforcement Directorate to appear for questioning in the National Herald case, and he was interrogated for approximately 50 hours over five days. Sonia Gandhi’s summons, which was scheduled for the same time, was later rescheduled due to health reasons. As of May 2023, the case is still ongoing, with Sonia and Rahul Gandhi being accused of cheating and breach of trust in the AJL-YIL case.
THE WAY FORWARD
The decision of the court is based on facts and law. The fact that there has been a probe going on against Mr Gandhi does not strip off his right to liberty under the constitution. Also, the court was attentive to the claims made and hence granted the NOC only 3 years.
The Congress party has been at the receiving end of several fatal blows lately, which include the internal feud in the party, leadership crisis, hopeless election results, the national herald case, and the recently delivered defamation verdict against Rahul Gandhi.
The current decision is somewhat a relief for the party as Mr Gandhi was supposed to address a rally in the U.S. along with some other programmes to increase the popular support of the party and spread its presence. Lastly, Fundamental structural changes coupled with other essential measures must be implemented by the party as it is the only way the party is going to stay on the national radar else it will be shrouded in oblivion in no time.