NEW DELHI — Rahul Gandhi, one of the last national figures standing in political opposition to Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, was disqualified as a member of parliament on Friday, sending shock waves across the country’s political scene and devastating the once-powerful Indian National Congress party Mr. Gandhi leads.
Mr. Gandhi was expelled from the lower house the day after a court in Gujarat, Mr. Modi’s home state, convicted him on a charge of criminal defamation. The charge stemmed from a comment he made on the campaign trail in 2019, characterizing Mr. Modi as one of a group of “thieves” named Modi, and Mr. Gandhi received a two-year prison sentence, the maximum. He is out on 30 days’ bail.
Any jail sentence of two years or more is supposed to result in automatic expulsion, but legal experts had expected Mr. Gandhi to have the chance to challenge his conviction. A notification signed by a parliamentary bureaucrat appointed by Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party on Friday stated that Mr. Gandhi had been disqualified automatically by the conviction itself, per the Constitution of India.
“They are destroying the constitution, killing it,” said Srinivas B.V., president of the Indian National Congress Party’s youth wing. “The court gave Mr. Gandhi 30 days to appeal against the order, and hardly 24 hours have passed since.”
Mr. Gandhi said in a Twitter post on Friday, “I am fighting for the voice of this country. I am ready to pay any price.”
Mr. Srinivas said the party will fight the expulsion, politically and legally. One of the party’s most prominent members, Shashi Tharoor, who like Mr. Gandhi is a member of the lower house in the state of Kerala, said on Twitter that the action ending his tenure in parliament was “politics with the gloves off, and it bodes ill for our democracy.”
Mr. Gandhi, a scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family whose father, grandmother and great-grandfather served as prime minister, has taken pains to improve his national profile in recent months. He led an unexpectedly popular march late last year across swaths of India, rallying crowds to “unite India” against the Hindu-first nationalism espoused by Mr. Modi. And since the fortunes of Gautam Adani, a tycoon long associated with Mr. Modi, collapsed under pressure from a short-seller’s report in January, Mr. Gandhi has been using his platform in parliament to call for an investigation of his business empire.
The Congress Party is not alone in worrying about the implications for India’s democracy that Mr. Gandhi’s disqualification poses. With parliamentary elections coming next year, the government’s attempts to clamp down on dissent seem to be gaining momentum, other opposition leaders pointed out.
Last month, Manish Sisodia, the second in command of the Aam Aadmi Party, was arrested on charges related to fraud. Earlier this month Kavitha K., a leader from a regional party that recently turned to national politics, was questioned by federal investigators in connection with the same case.
The string of criminal cases against politicians — though none have been brought against high-profile members of Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P. — contrasts awkwardly with Mr. Modi’s presentation of India as “the Mother of Democracy” during a global publicity blitz to accompany its hosting the Group of 20 summit meeting this year.
Police raids against the BBC’s office in India and some of the country’s leading think tanks have intensified doubts about the strength of India’s democracy. Eliminating the opposition from parliament through the courts might heighten those misgivings dramatically.