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India's main opposition leader has been disqualified from parliament

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

India's Parliament has disqualified a top opposition leader. Rahul Gandhi is the descendent of a political dynasty that once dominated Indian politics. His ouster from Parliament complicates his ability to challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who's running for reelection next year. NPR's Lauren Frayer joins us from our bureau in Mumbai. Lauren, thanks so much for being with us.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: And why has this man with such a famous name been kicked out of Parliament?

FRAYER: The legal answer is that he was convicted of criminal defamation for insulting the prime minister. He's been sentenced to two years in prison. That happens to be the minimum sentence that disbars him from holding office. The political answer is that he was probably the most prominent figure challenging Modi on the national stage ahead of next year's elections. Parliament is dominated by Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, the BJP, and it didn't want to take any chances. It wanted to eliminate any electoral threat.

SIMON: What did Mr. Gandhi say about the prime minister that brought defamation charges?

FRAYER: He compared the prime minister and others with the Modi name to thieves, and this was at an election rally in 2019. It sounds very innocuous compared to things you hear from politicians here and in other countries. But an official from Modi's party sued. A court in Modi's home state convicted Rahul Gandhi. I have to say, in India, as you know, charges like this fly daily. Figures from many different parties regularly abuse the courts to prosecute political grudges. Almost half of the Indian Parliament has criminal charges pending. Gandhi is unlikely to do time. His sentence has been suspended for at least 30 days. He's out on bail. He's appealing. But what is unusual is to have him disqualified from politics altogether.

SIMON: Yeah. What does this mean for Rahul Gandhi's political future with elections coming so soon?

FRAYER: So Gandhi held a news conference sounding very defiant, refusing to apologize. He actually said the prime minister is scared of him. But unless his conviction is overturned by higher courts, he cannot face Modi in next year's election. Rahul Gandhi - you mentioned his political dynasty. His father, his grandmother, his great-grandfather were all prime ministers of India. And their party, the Indian National Congress, is the party of Mahatma Gandhi though they're not related - same name, different lineage.

But it's a center-left party that was sort of the product of the Indian freedom struggle, calls itself the party of inclusion, of minority rights, a vision of India as diverse and secular. And that vision has been totally eclipsed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalists, who dominate politics at the national level at least. They have tremendous influence over the courts, over the legislature, the media. And they've managed to get that influence through legal Democratic means. Modi has very high approval ratings, upwards of 70%. And Gandhi hasn't been able to erode that much. And so this shows that Modi's party is actually willing to go after even a quite weak opponent.

SIMON: Do Indians seem to be upset?

FRAYER: Modi's supporters say this shows nobody's above the law. But his critics say his party is being - one opposition politician called it vindictive and shameful. And some say democracy is in danger in what is still, hopefully, the world's biggest democracy.

SIMON: NPR's Lauren Frayer in Mumbai. Thanks so much.

FRAYER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.