AHMEDABAD, March 23 (Reuters) - A lower court in India sentenced opposition leader Rahul Gandhi on Thursday to two years in jail on charges of defamation for a 2019 speech in which he referred to thieves as having the surname Modi.
Gandhi will appeal against the order in a higher court, but any jailing for him or his disqualification from parliament would be a blow to his Congress party ahead of the 2024 general election, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party is widely expected to win.
The judgment was passed by a magistrate's court in the city of Surat, located in Modi's home state of Gujarat. The case was brought by a Gujarat lawmaker from Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Gandhi, the 52-year-old scion of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, was present at the Surat court, which gave him bail immediately and suspended the sentence for a month.
"Accused Rahul Gandhi is held guilty ... and sentenced to two years simple imprisonment," Harish Varma, the chief judicial magistrate of Surat, said in his order.
Ketan Reshamwala, an advocate for complainant Purnesh Modi, said the court had found Gandhi's comment defamatory.
An adviser to the federal government, Kanchan Gupta, said Gandhi could face immediate disqualification from parliament following the conviction, in line with a 2013 order of the country's highest court.
Congress spokesperson and top lawyer Abhishek Singhvi told a news conference that the party feared Gandhi could be disqualified.
"The disqualification issue is dependent on the stay of conviction," he said.
"Any reasonable system, any reasonable, fair, non-oppressive, non-biased system would give sufficient time to a person to take some legal steps to stay the conviction," he said.
In the speech ahead of the last general election in 2019, Gandhi referred to the prime minister and two fugitive Indian businessmen, all surnamed Modi, while talking about alleged high-level corruption in the country.
On Thursday, Gandhi, a former Congress president who is currently an influential MP, told the court that his comment was not against any community.
Congress members rallied behind Gandhi, with many state units planning protests later in the day and on Friday.
"The Modi government is a victim of political bankruptcy", Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge said on Twitter. "We will appeal in the higher court."
Gandhi also received support from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that rules Delhi and two of whose top leaders are in jail on what they call trumped-up charges.
"We have differences with the Congress, but it is not right to implicate Rahul Gandhi in a defamation case like this. It is the job of the public and the opposition to ask questions. We respect the court but disagree with the decision," AAP chief and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal wrote on Twitter.
Gandhi's once-dominant Congress controls less than 10% of the elected seats in parliament's lower house and lost badly to the BJP in the last two general elections.
Modi remains India's most popular politician by a substantial margin and polls show he is expected to win a third victory at the election next year.
Unlike in many countries, where defamation is a civil offence, Indian law also has provisions which classify it as a criminal offence punishable with a jail term of up to two years.