India’s main opposition leader Rahul Gandhi was restored to parliament Monday after the Supreme Court last week suspended his defamation conviction over political comments criticizing Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Gandhi is the scion of India’s premier political dynasty and his reinstatement was welcomed by other members of the Congress party, which was once dominant but has lost the past two elections to Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Gandhi’s disqualification “has ceased to operate subject to further judicial pronouncements,” Utpal Kumar Singh, secretary general of the lower parliament house, said in a statement.
The 53-year-old Congress party leader was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in March in a case that critics flagged as an effort to stifle political opposition in the world’s largest democracy.
The conviction stemmed from a remark made during the 2019 election campaign when Gandhi had asked why “all thieves have Modi as (their) common surname.”
His comments were portrayed as a slur against the prime minister and against all those with the same surname, which is associated with the lower rungs of India’s caste hierarchy.
Anyone sentenced to a custodial term of two years or more is ineligible to sit in India’s parliament, forcing Gandhi’s expulsion from the body in March. He was turfed out of the legislature as a result but stayed out of jail while appealing to the Supreme Court in New Delhi.
Congress head Mallikarjun Kharge said it was “a welcome step,” and called on the government to concentrate on “governance rather than denigrating democracy by targeting opposition leaders.”
Fellow Congress party MP Shashi Tharoor welcomed Gandhi’s reinstatement “with enormous relief.”
“He can now resume his duties in the Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) to serve the people of India and his constituents... A victory of justice and for our democracy,” he said.
Many Congress leaders posted videos and messages hailing Monday’s order and Kharge offered sweets to opposition leaders۔ Dancing supporters waving flags gathered outside Congress headquarters in New Delhi, shouting slogans backing Gandhi and thumping drums.
Gandhi is expected to rejoin the lower house on Monday afternoon, where he sits as a lawmaker from the southern state of Kerala.
India’s top court suspended Gandhi’s defamation conviction on Friday and said the initial trial had failed to justify imposing the maximum sentence for his campaign rally comments four years ago.
“The order of conviction needs to be stayed pending final adjudication,” Justice B.R. Gavai said in his ruling.
Gandhi is the son, grandson and great-grandson of former prime ministers, beginning with independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru.
Congress was once the dominant force of Indian politics but Gandhi has lost two elections to Modi and his Hindu nationalist BJP after being cast as a princeling out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Indians.
The weakened Congress party has tried to stitch a grand coalition with disparate regional opposition parties in the run-up to the 2024 national elections to challenge Modi, who hopes to win his third successive term in office. They hope to beat the BJP by challenging what they say is its centralized and nationalistic appeal to voters.