NEW DELHI — Rahul Gandhi went to battle against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in elections four years ago waving the banner of India’s multi-sectarian tradition and characterizing Mr. Modi as a dangerous Hindu nationalist who would whittle away the country’s democracy if he remained in power.
A Modi landslide in that 2019 vote all but buried Mr. Gandhi and the storied party his family had led for generations, the Indian National Congress.
On Friday, Mr. Modi’s allies moved to finish the job: Officials disqualified Mr. Gandhi from his seat in Parliament, just a day after a court found him guilty of criminal defamation — over a line at a 2019 campaign speech in which he likened Mr. Modi to a pair of prominent “thieves” with the same last name. The move came before he had any chance to appeal.
The sentence in that trial, two years in prison, happens to be the statutory minimum penalty that renders a sitting member of Parliament ineligible for office. New national elections are scheduled to take place early next year, and whatever luck Mr. Gandhi and his lawyers find in court, the defamation verdict seems likely to keep him and Congress mired in legal defense for years to come.
It was the boldest stroke yet by Mr. Modi’s allies to winnow out potential rivals and move against sources of dissent, in what is being seen broadly as a consolidation of power ahead of next year’s elections.
Mr. Modi is fond of reminding world leaders that India is the biggest democracy on the planet. But his critics accuse him and his Bharatiya Janata Party, known as the B.J.P., of trying to twist the country’s political system into something more akin to an electoral autocracy, with himself as total leader.
“The speed with which the system moved is astonishing,” the Congress politician P.C. Chidambaram said in a post on Twitter, commenting on Mr. Gandhi’s removal. “No time is spent on reflection, understanding or allowing time for legal review.”
Mr. Modi’s march against India’s traditional array of power-sharing arrangements has been accelerating across many fronts, with the Congress party and its debilitated prospects merely one casualty.
“This fight is not Rahul Gandhi’s fight. This fight is not the Congress party’s fight. This is a fight to save this country from a dictator, from a less-educated person,” said Arvind Kejriwal, the leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, which bills itself as the strongest alternative to either the B.J.P. or Congress. “It’s a fight to save this country from an arrogant person.”
Mr. Kejriwal’s own right-hand man, Manish Sisodia, was tossed in jail last month and buried in criminal charges stemming from complex allegations of liquor-licensing fraud. His health minister has been jailed as well, on allegations of money laundering.
The Enforcement Directorate, one of a handful of agencies that answer indirectly to Mr. Modi’s government, has set its sights on other up-and-coming politicians, including Kalvakuntla Kavitha from the state of Telangana. Like Mr. Kejriwal’s party, Ms. Kavitha’s had started vying for a national role.
It is a fractured opposition field that has made little headway against Mr. Modi, who is tremendously popular, with approval ratings consistently at 70 percent or more in polls.
Mr. Gandhi, 52, had been building up his own profile lately. He had rallied the public with a grass-roots march across India — 2,500 miles over five months — in which he railed against Mr. Modi’s power.
“Every democratic institution was shut for us by the government: Parliament, media, elections,” Mr. Gandhi told supporters in Madhya Pradesh state in November. “There was no other way but to hit the streets to listen and connect with people.”
But even before his conviction, political analysts did not see that Congress or any other party stood a realistic chance of displacing Mr. Modi in the 2024 elections. B.J.P. campaigns remain incontestably well-managed at the local, state and national levels, and changes in election-financing rules under consecutive B.J.P. governments have even further bent the electoral odds the party’s way.
So the rough treatment for Mr. Gandhi presents a puzzle — and, perhaps, a potential rallying cry for a struggling opposition.
In an unusual show of unity on Friday, before Mr. Gandhi’s disqualification was announced, 14 political parties united to put their names before a petition to the country’s Supreme Court, asking it to set guidelines to limit what they call “arbitrary” actions by investigating agencies against the politicians.
Derek O’Brien, the spokesman for one of the parties that has managed to stave off Mr. Modi’s B.J.P. at the regional level, said in a video that what Mr. Modi was doing was “the lowest in the history of parliamentary democracy.”
The Supreme Court agreed to hear the parties’ petition on April 5. In the past some of the same politicians have insinuated that the court does the government’s bidding. But on Friday they turned to it as a last hope.
The current chief justice of India, Dhananjaya Chandrachud, has spoken often of lessons from the Emergency of 1975, when then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi — Rahul’s grandmother — rolled up Indians’ civil liberties and suspended democracy formally. During the two years before elections were reinstated, and Mrs. Gandhi was defeated, it was his fellow judges “who kept the torch of liberty burning,” he said.
On Wednesday, speaking at a media awards ceremony, Mr. Chandrachud appealed on behalf of another unelected element of India’s democratic architecture: He warned that “the press must remain free if a country is to remain a democracy.”
A day before the speech, Irfan Mehraj, a journalist in Kashmir, was arrested by the National Investigation Agency on charges of terrorism. Such detentions and legal harassment have become routine for journalists, particularly for Muslim reporters.
International organizations, media and otherwise, have felt the screws tightening, too. In February, after the B.B.C. aired a documentary in Britain that faulted Mr. Modi for his role in Hindu-Muslim massacres that killed about 1,000 people in Gujarat in 2002, the tax authorities raided its offices in Delhi. The most-esteemed independent think tank in India was raided months earlier, and last month lost its permission to raise funds from abroad.
The operations of Amnesty International, Oxfam India and other groups have been suspended for similar reasons. Yet Mr. Modi’s government faces little criticism from abroad. In geopolitical terms, everything seems to be going his way.
The war in Ukraine and worries about China have made the rest of the world more inclined than ever to turn to India, whether for military or diplomatic alliances or for the rerouting of supply chains.
One of the rare sore spots for Mr. Modi in public has been the recent crash of the Adani Group, a corporate giant led by a close ally who is one of the world’s richest men, Gautam Adani, 60. The prime minister has been visibly uncomfortable about it, and has not uttered the name Adani in public since the company took a beating at the hands of short-sellers and lost more than $135 billion in value.
Mr. Gandhi had been one of the most forceful Indian voices in raising the issue in Parliament, and in public speeches. His family says they believe that played a role in the maneuvers against him this week, after the defamation case had been stalled for months.
“The complainant himself had asked the case to be stayed,” said Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, a prominent Congress politician who is Mr. Gandhi’s sister. “The case was stayed for a year, and after my brother’s speech about Adani, how did the complainant revive that case all of a sudden?”
Hari Kumar and Mujib Mashal contributed reporting.