In a big relief to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, the Supreme Court on Friday stayed his conviction in a 2019 defamation case over his Modi surname remark, paving the way for revival of his Lok Sabha membership.
The Lok Sabha speaker can now revive his membership on his own or Gandhi, armed with the apex court order, seek restoration of his status as an MP.
A three-judge bench of Justices B R Gavai, P S Narasimha and Sanjay Kumar said no reason was given by the trial court judge while convicting Gandhi except that he was admonished by the apex court in a contempt case.
The top court had closed the contempt proceedings against Gandhi for wrongly attributing to it his “chowkidar chor hai” remark against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in connection with the Rafale case, with a warning to be more careful in future after the senior Congress leader tendered an unconditional apology.
The term of the 17th Lok Sabha ends in May 2024.
The top court said in so far as conviction is concerned, it has considered that the sentence for an offence punishable under section 499 (defamation) of the Indian Penal Code is maximum two years imprisonment or fine or both, and the trial judge has awarded the maximum sentence of two years.
“Except the admonition by Supreme Court in a contempt case, no other reason has been granted for this (conviction) by trial judge. It is to be noted only on account of this maximum sentence imposed by trial judge, provisions of Representation of People Act have come into play.
“Had sentence been a day lesser, provisions would not have been attracted, particularly when an offence is non cognisable, bailable and compoundable. The least the trial court judge was expected was give some reasons to impose maximum sentence. Though appellate court and high court have spent voluminous pages rejecting stay on conviction, these aspects are not considered in their orders,” the bench said.
Referring to its earlier order in a contempt case against Gandhi, the apex court said while filing his affidavit in the contempt petition, he ought to have been more careful and exercised a degree of restraint in making such remarks which are alleged to be defamatory.
The apex court said Gandhi’s conviction and subsequent disqualification not only affected his right to continue in public life but also that of the electorate who elected him to represent their constituency.
“No doubt the utterances were not in good taste and a person in public life is expected to exercise caution while making public speeches. Taking into consideration these and that no reason has been given by the trial judge for imposing the maximum sentence, the order of conviction needs to be stayed pending final adjudication,” the bench said.
As the hearing began, senior advocate Abhishek Singhvi, appearing for Gandhi, told the bench his client is not a hardened criminal and was never convicted despite several cases having been filed against him by BJP workers.
Senior advocate Mahesh Jethmalani, appearing for ex-Gujarat minister Purnesh Modi, whose complaint led to Gandhi’s conviction, said there is plethora of evidence against the former Congress president.
The top court was hearing a plea by Gandhi challenging the Gujarat High Court verdict which dismissed his plea seeking a stay on his conviction in the defamation case filed by Purnesh Modi over his “Modi surname” remark.
Gandhi had persistently refused to apologise for his remark but urged the Supreme Court to stay his conviction in the criminal defamation case stemming from his comment, asserting he is not guilty.
Purnesh Modi had filed the criminal defamation case in 2019 against Gandhi over his “How come all thieves have Modi as the common surname?” remark made during an election rally in Kolar in Karnataka on April 13, 2019. (PTI)