India’s leading opposition figure Rahul Gandhi has promised to keep fighting for democracy after blaming his expulsion from parliament on his demands for a probe into a key business ally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Gandhi, 52, was stripped of his parliamentary seat on Friday, a day after he was convicted of defamation in Modi’s home state of Gujarat for a 2019 campaign trail remark seen as an insult to the premier.
Modi’s government has been widely accused by political opponents and rights groups of using the law to target and silence critics, but Gandhi said he would not bow to intimidation.
“I will do whatever I have to do to defend the democratic nature of this country,” he told reporters on Saturday. “They are used to everybody being scared of them. I am not scared of them.”
The removal from the parliament of Modi’s chief opponent comes at a time when the PM’s relationship with Gautam Adani, one of India’s most powerful industrialists, has been under scrutiny.
Modi has been a close associate of Adani for decades but the latter’s business empire has been the subject of renewed attention this year after a US investment firm accused it of “brazen” corporate fraud.
Gandhi’s opposition Congress party has for weeks demanded a proper investigation by parliament of the allegations.
“I have been disqualified because the prime minister … is scared of the next speech that is going to come on Adani,” Gandhi told reporters. “I will continue to ask the question – what is the prime minister’s relationship with Mr Adani?”
Congress supporters held small protests in several cities around the country on Saturday to protest against Gandhi’s removal as an MP.
Gandhi is the leading face of Congress, once the dominant force of Indian politics but now a shadow of its former self.
He is the scion of India’s most famous political dynasty and the son, grandson and great-grandson of former prime ministers, beginning with independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru.
But he has struggled to challenge the electoral juggernaut of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its nationalist appeal to the country’s Hindu majority.
The lower house of parliament ruled him ineligible to continue sitting as an MP on Friday, a day after his conviction in the defamation case.
The prosecution stemmed from a remark made during the 2019 election campaign in which Gandhi had asked why “all thieves have Modi as common surname”.
His comments were seen as a slur against the prime minister, who went on to win the election in a landslide.
Members of the government also said the remark was a smear against all those sharing the Modi surname, which is associated with the lower rungs of India’s traditional caste hierarchy.
Gandhi was sentenced to two years imprisonment on Thursday but walked free on bail after his lawyers promised to appeal.
A BJP spokesman said on Thursday that the court acted with “due judicial process” in arriving at its judgement.