Holding that ramifications of Section 8(3) of the Representation of the People Act to bar lawmakers from contesting elections after being sentenced for two or more years, are “wide-ranging” as it affects also the right of the electorate that elected him, a bench of Justices B R Gavai, P S Narasimha and Sanjay Kumar took less than an hour to pass the order in Rahul’s favour. The court noted that the trial court sentenced Rahul to two years of imprisonment — the maximum for criminal defamation — but did not lay out the reason, a relevant fact that was overlooked even by the Gujarat high court, which had rejected the Congress functionary’s plea for stay of conviction. It said there was not even “whisper” on this by the trial court.
The top court said the trial court order not only affected the right of one individual but the rights of people of Wayanad as he was disqualified, resulting in his constituency in Kerala going unrepresented in Parliament.
The two-year sentence would have entailed Rahul getting barred from the electoral arena for eight years, considering that Section 8(3) says that “such a convicted person shall be disqualified from the date of such conviction and shall remain so for a further period of six years after the completion of the two-year-sentence”.
“We are of the considered view that the ramification of Subsection (3) of Section 8 of the Act are wide-ranging. They not only affect the right of the appellant to continue in public life but also affect the rights of the electorate, who have elected him, to represent their constituency… taking into consideration the aforesaid aspects and particularly that no reasons have been given by the trial judge for imposing the maximum sentence which has the effect of incurring disqualification under Section 8(3), the order of conviction needs to be stayed, pending hearing of the present appeal,” the bench said.
“Particularly, when an offence is non-cognisable, bailable and compoundable, the least that the trial judge was expected to do was to give some reasons as to why, in the facts and circumstances, he found it necessary to impose the maximum sentence of two years. Though the appellate court and the high court have spent voluminous pages while rejecting the application for stay of conviction, these aspects have not even been touched in their orders,” it said.
The bench agreed with the submission of senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi who argued that it was a fit case to stay the conviction as Rahul Gandhi cannot be silenced for eight years. Singhvi said Rahul’s statement was not intended to defame any community and there was no moral turpitude involved in it and it was the first case in the history where maximum sentence was awarded in a bailable, non-cognisable and compoundable offence.
Singhvi countered the determination of the trial court that Rahul had a criminal antecedent, and asserted that the Congress leader is not a criminal and he has never been convicted in any case.
His plea was opposed by senior advocate Mahesh Jethmalani, appearing for the complainant, who submitted that Rahul was admonished by the apex court itself for making contemptuous remarks (Rafale case) and his jibe against the Modi community was also made in the same year (2019). He said the remarks were against an entire community of 13 crore and every one of them has the right to file case against him.
Though making it clear that it is not commenting on the merits of the case, the bench, however, said, “No doubt that the alleged utterances by the appellant are not in good taste. A person in public life is expected to exercise a degree of restraint while making public speeches… the appellant ought to have been more careful while making the public speech. Maybe, had the judgment of the apex court in the contempt proceedings (Rafale case) come prior to the speech made by the appellant, the appellant would have been more careful…”
Taking a dig at the orders passed by trial court and upheld by Gujarat HC in the case, the bench said that some of the judgments coming from the HC make for interesting reading and added, “the less said about it the better”. As solicitor general Tushar Mehta pleaded the court not to pass observation against the HC as it would have a demoralising impact, the bench said it demoralises “that is why we are very slow in criticising”.
Congress supporters celebrate after Supreme Court stays Rahul Gandhi conviction in ‘Modi surname’ defamation case