By Nantoo Banerjee

The punishment meted out to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi by the Surat court in a 2019 criminal defamation case filed against him by a BJP MLA over his “why all thieves have Modi surname” remarks may have been considered by many as disproportionate to his sin of verbally abusing the prime minister in a public meeting. However, few will disagree that the remarks were in poor taste. Notably, the punishment perfectly fits in the provision of the Representation of the People Act under which an MP or MLA or MLC sentenced to imprisonment of two years or more shall be disqualified as a member of state legislature or parliament “from the date of such conviction” and remain disqualified for another six years after serving time.

Ironically, in 2013, Rahul Gandhi wholeheartedly supported the provision. Probably, Rahul Gandhi could never imagine that he would fall victim to the Supreme Court’s epoch-making judgement in the Lily Thomas versus the Union of India case. Lawyer Lily Thomas, along with advocate Satya Narain Shukla, had filed a writ petition in the apex court in 2005, challenging a provision of the Representation of the People Act which protects convicted lawmakers against disqualification on the grounds of pendency of appeal against their conviction in higher courts.

Only four MPs were known to have been disqualified earlier under the Supreme Court provision. They were: Rasheed Masood from Rajya Sabha, RJD supremo Lalu Prasad Yadav from Lok Sabha, Jagdish Sharma of JD (U) from Lok Sabha and, now, Rahul Gandhi of INC from Lok Sabha. Lalu Prasad Yadav and Jagdish Sharma were convicted in the massive fodder scam case. Rasheed Masood, a nine-time MP, was convicted in a corruption scandal for fraudulently nominating undeserving candidates to MBBS seats. Tamil Nadu’s T.M. Selvaganapathy, a Rajya Sabha MP, convicted under the provision for his involvement in a cremation shed construction scam, resigned before he could be removed from parliament. In addition, at least seven state legislators were booked under the provision. They were involved in crimes such as an attempt to murder, theft, financial corruption and holding disproportionate assets to known incomes. Never before was a legislator convicted for derogatory public remarks.

While convicting Rahul Gandhi, the Surat court said: Although the accused was warned and advised by the Supreme Court, there is no evidence of any change in his conduct. “The accused is an MP who addresses the people in the capacity of an MP and impacts a large part of society, therefore the effect of this crime is much more comprehensive in this case.” Further it said: “If the accused is given lesser punishment, it will send a wrong message to the public and the purpose of defamation (law) is not fulfilled and slandering will become easy.” The exemplary punishment fitted the bill in accordance with the apex court judgement in July 2013 saying that any MP or MLA or MLC, who is convicted of a crime and given a minimum of two years’ imprisonment, loses membership of the House with immediate effect. Rahul Gandhi was convicted under Section 500 of the Indian Penal Court and sentenced two years in jail.

Rahul Gandhi is the first MP to be convicted under the provision for verbal abuse and given a sentence that automatically disqualifies him to continue as an MP. This may look rather unusual, if not harsh.  In a democracy, especially during election campaigns, verbal attacks on opposition are common. Political leaders have always been less charitable with words to their nearest opponents during elections. The trend prevails across democracies in the world. The US, the world’s second largest and most vibrant of democracies, is also probably the worst in the use of invectives and curses by one political leader against another.  Almost all of them get away with uses of coarse or blasphemous words to express their anger and strong emotions against political opponents. In fact, the general public enjoys such expressions that seem to bring their hi-profile leaders close to their cerebral level. Election campaigns often expose the true individual character of a political leader and his or her party.

In the US, public insults to opposition leaders and nasty campaign rhetorics during presidential elections have been the order of the day since the 18th Century. With time, the campaign rhetorics have become nastier.  Alexander Hamilton, whose image graces $10-bill, was called “Bastard Brat of a Scotch Peddler” by John Adams. The latter hated Hamilton. Horace Greeley, who owned The New York Tribune newspaper, called Ulysses S. Grant “A Drunken Trouser Maker” and “as brainless as his saddle.” Lewis Cass, who ran unsuccessfully as the Democratic candidate for president in 1848 (he lost to Zachary Taylor), did not receive so much invective as to make him a particularly notable candidate. Cass was described as “pot-bellied, mutton-headed, cucumber-soled.” Kenneth Rayner called President Franklin Pierce “Pimp of the White House.” In the UK, Sir Edward Heath was called a pedophile and Ms. Margaret Thatcher a “milk snatcher.”

Even in the 21st Century, Indian society seems to have generally remained much sober and orthodox, barring in a few states like Punjab and Haryana where the use of foul words has been part of life and normal expression raising no complaints from family members and friends. The choicest of abuses are freely hurled. The abuses will detail various parts of the human anatomy, make the vilest of accusations about close relatives and refer to acts of reproduction in a rather crude manner. It is fast becoming an accepted norm in other parts of the country due to rapidly changing social conditions. The main question remains whether such abuse should be an accepted norm and whether it can be considered as a penal offence, if it is not already so.

The Surat court order, followed by Parliament’s immediate disqualification of Rahul Gandhi as its member, is most unlikely to impact the Congress leader’s political career and his party’s public profile. On the contrary, the action may help rejuvenate the party’s public acceptance across the country before the next year’s Lok Sabha elections. Paradoxically, Rahul Gandhi supported the 2013 Supreme Court order on the criminal cases against legislators in the states and Parliament. Within days, he called a press meet in Delhi to tear off a copy of the ordinance, pending before President Pranab Mukherjee after it was passed by the union cabinet, seeking to bring a bill in Parliament to amend the law. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was on an official tour of the US, then. He was highly embarrassed. However, Rahul Gandhi did not regret.  (IPA Service)

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