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DC Edit | SC relief for Rahul is a boost for democracy too


Published on: August 4, 2023 | Updated on: August 4, 2023

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi with party President Mallikarjun Kharge addresses a press conference after the Supreme Court stayed his conviction in the 2019 criminal defamation case over his 'Modi surname' remark, restoring his status as an MP, at AICC headquarters in New Delhi, Friday, Aug. 4, 2023. (PTI Photo/Manvender Vashist Lav)

The Supreme Court’s order staying the Surat chief judicial magistrate’s conviction of Rahul Gandhi in a criminal defamation case and sentencing him to the maximum punishment of two years in jail indeed offers some relief to the Congress leader. Its impact will, however, be felt much beyond the personal political prospects of the Congress leader and Wayanad MP, and will cover the process of democracy in India as it seeks to redeem judicial accountability, neutrality  and independence.   

While making known its displeasure at the language used by Mr Gandhi by iterating that it was not in "good taste" and that a person in public life ought to have been more careful while making public speeches, the apex court deliberated specifically on two important aspects of the orders of the lower courts — one, the magistrate awarded Mr Gandhi the maximum punishment of two years in such a way that it would attract provisions of Section 8(3) of the Representation of the People Act that calls for disqualification of an elected legislator convicted for two years; and two, no court bothered to explain why he was handed down the maximum punishment.

The apex court carefully pointed out that the magistrate offered no reason other than his admonition in a contempt proceeding to Mr Gandhi while imposing the maximum sentence. The court’s suggestion that the judge should have given reasons when he imposes the maximum punishment in a case involving a non-compoundable, bailable and cognisable offence reflects its extreme discomfiture with the way the trial court went about the sentencing. When it mentioned that, had the sentence been a day lesser, then the legal provisions for disqualification would not have been attracted, many right-thinking people would feel that the court was speaking their mind.

It’s very refreshing that the Supreme Court looked at the impact of the magistrate’s order not only on the right of one individual "but [on] an entire electorate of a constituency". It is an important marker where the interests of the people, the ultimate arbiters in a democracy, are given due regard.  

The observation of the apex court that the appellate court and the high court spent voluminous pages in rejecting Mr Gandhi’s applications but did not consider some key aspects of the case only reflects an interesting pattern. While the magistrate who convicted Mr Gandhi said a lesser punishment would send a wrong message to the public, the sessions court, on its part, observed that "any word spoken by [the] appellant would have large impact in mind of common public". The Gujarat high court found it was not an "individual-centric defamation case", but something which affected a "large section of society". It seems the courts were more eager to assess the impact their verdict on the people at large and less on Mr Gandhi and the people he represented.

The return of Mr Gandhi, who has insisted he would not tender an apology for his remarks, to Parliament is sure to reenergise the INDIA bloc of Opposition parties as they get ready to take on the NDA in the elections to the Assemblies of five states. The challenge for the bloc will now be to translate the psychological victory it has got over the BJP by Mr Gandhi’s return to electoral politics into a political one.