India’s Supreme Court cleared the way on Friday for Rahul Gandhi, the country’s foremost opposition leader, to return to Parliament and run in next spring’s national elections, a contest that will pit a coalition dominated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi against a debilitated Congress Party led unofficially by Mr. Gandhi.
The decision reversed a lower court’s ruling that had sentenced Mr. Gandhi to two years in prison and therefore disqualified him from the legislature for a taunting remark he made in 2019 about the name Modi.
It was unclear when Mr. Gandhi — the fourth-generation scion and great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, a founding father of independent India — would be reinstated to Parliament. He was disqualified less than 24 hours after the original conviction.
Until last year, he had been considered an especially ineffectual politician. In recent months, undaunted by his expulsion from Parliament, his side has managed to gather a broad range of parties into an alliance under the acronym INDIA. But they remain very much the underdog.
In his 2019 comments, made on the campaign trail, Mr. Gandhi had cited a short list of infamous fugitives accused of large-scale fraud: Lalit Modi, a cricket impresario; and Nirav Modi, a diamond merchant. Then Mr. Gandhi said — in an obvious slight against the popular prime minister, whom he often accuses of wrongdoing — “Why are all thieves named Modi?”
An unrelated man named Purnesh Modi then filed a complaint to a court in Surat, a city in the prime minister’s home state of Gujarat, arguing that the remarks amounted to a criminal slur against all Modis. A judge convicted Mr. Gandhi in March, and Gujarat’s high court later refused the opposition leader’s appeal attempt after a series of hearings.
But the country’s Supreme Court, which took only a couple of hours of deliberation to overturn the verdict, noted that the crime’s maximum sentence — two years — happened to be exactly the minimum required to disqualify an elected lawmaker. Defamation charges in India virtually never attract a two-year sentence.
The Supreme Court stopped short of implying any foul play within the judiciary, however. Instead, it said simply that the lower courts had erred, ruling that no sufficient “reason has been granted by the learned trial judge while imposing the maximum sentence of two years.”
The justices did chide Mr. Gandhi, saying that his statement about the name Modi was not in “good taste” and that he ought to be more careful as a public speaker.
When the Surat court issued its ruling, Mr. Gandhi was forced out of the official residence where he had lived for 19 years, and his ability to run for office in next year’s election was thrown into doubt.
After the Supreme Court handed down its decision on Friday, Mr. Gandhi struck an upbeat note, albeit in keeping with a stoical persona he has been developing in his campaign against Mr. Modi. “The path ahead of me is clear,” he said at a news conference, adding, “If not today, tomorrow or the next day, the truth will prevail.”
Reactions from his supporters within the Congress Party were mainly jubilant, but not entirely. “This is not one to celebrate but weep,” Praveen Chakravarty, a close adviser of Mr. Gandhi’s, posted on Twitter. “An orchestrated judgment in a bogus case by a friendly court had to be rectified by the SC, when 70,000 cases are pending. Shows how much India’s institutions are damaged.”
Other party leaders asked pointedly whether Mr. Gandhi would be reinstated in Parliament as quickly as he was thrown out in March.
Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, which had defended the lower court’s ruling against Mr. Gandhi, was slow to make any statement about Friday’s judgment. Hours later, a party spokesman posted: “Rahul Gandhi may have survived this one, but for how long?”
Hari Kumar contributed reporting.