Top Indian opposition figure Rahul Gandhi said Saturday his disqualification from parliament was retribution for his demanding a probe into Prime Minister Narendra Modi's relationship with a controversial tycoon.
Gandhi was stripped of his parliamentary seat on Friday, a day after a defamation conviction 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 of using the law to target and silence critics. The removal of its chief opponent comes at a time when its relationship with one of India's most powerful industrialists has been under scrutiny.
Modi has been a close associate of Gautam Adani for decades but the latter's business empire has been subject of renewed attention this year after a US investment firm accused it of "brazen" corporate fraud.
"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 am here defending the democratic voice of the Indian people," he added. "I am not scared of these threats."
Gandhi, of the opposition Congress party, was sentenced to two years imprisonment on Thursday but walked free on bail after his lawyers vowed to appeal.
However, the conviction made him ineligible to continue sitting as a lawmaker in the lower house of parliament, the chamber's joint secretary said Friday.
Gandhi, 52, is the leading face of Congress, once the dominant force of Indian politics but now a shadow of its former self.
He has struggled to challenge the electoral juggernaut of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party and its nationalist appeals to the country's Hindu majority.
Thursday's case stemmed from a remark made during the 2019 election campaign in which Gandhi had asked why "all thieves have Modi as (their) common surname".
His comments were seen as a slur against the prime minister, who went on to win the election in a landslide.
- 'Emasculation of democratic institutions' -
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.
Legal action has been widely deployed against opposition party figures and institutions seen as critical of the Modi government in recent years.
Gandhi faces several other defamation cases in the country and a money- laundering case that has been snaking its way through India's glacial legal system for more than a decade.
Congress spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi told reporters on Friday that the verdict represented the "emasculation of democratic institutions by the ruling party".