As Congress president Sonia Gandhi came out of a strategy meeting in Parliament on the morning of December 8, a journalist asked her if she was upset that, a day earlier, the Delhi High Court had ruled that she and son Rahul would have to appear before a trial court in the National Herald case. “Why should I be upset?” she shot back. And then, putting her arm around Congress MP Sushmita Deb, she said: “As I told my colleague, I am the daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi. I am not scared of anyone.”
Around the same time, during a hearing in the metropolitan magistrate's court in Patiala House, Sonia’s lawyers in the case (see graphics) said the accused were “eager, willing, ready and anxious” to appear in court. The judge directed all the accused to appear on December 19.
Like his mother, Rahul also was in a combative mood. “This is 100 per cent political vendetta coming out of the Prime Minister’s Office,” the Congress vice president told reporters outside Parliament.
The Congress high command was obviously rattled. Both houses of Parliament were stalled, with party MPs shouting slogans against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “political vendetta”.
Sonia led the charge in the Lok Sabha. As Congress MPs disrupted proceedings, Speaker Sumitra Mahajan appealed to them: “I am ready to allow you to speak, but I don’t know what your issue is. Someone tell me what is your issue.”
She then asked Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge to explain. A visibly angry Sonia, however, pulled Kharge back to his seat and gestured to him to keep mum.
Then, she engaged in a heated argument with Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Rajiv Pratap Rudy, as he criticised the Congress’s stance in the house.
By then, the Congress strategy became clear: turn the National Herald case into a Congress vs Modi battle.
“It will benefit us politically to appear before the court,” said a senior party leader. “We can have agitations all over the country.”
Soon, comparisons were drawn between the present situation and 1977, when Indira Gandhi had got embroiled in court cases during the Janata Party rule. It was believed that the cases had helped Indira gain the sympathy of hoi polloi and return to power.
“They [the BJP] want to repeat what happened in 1977,” said Congress leader Oscar Fernandes, who is also an accused in the case. “They actually want to do much more than that. They are most welcome to do it. Maybe, they do not remember what the end result of the campaign against our leaders was back then.”
The strategy to brazen it out was dramatically different from the party's stance soon after the High Court verdict. Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi, who was arguing for Sonia and Rahul in the case, said after the judgment that the legal team handling the case would move the Supreme Court the next morning. Singhvi, however, was found in the trial court the next morning, seeking a date for the accused to appear.
Initially, after the High Court ruling, Congress media cell chairman Randeep Surjewala had said, “The Congress does not view it as a setback but as an ongoing judicial process.”
The stand changed within 24 hours. “The prime minister has invited a head-on battle. We are ready to take him on,” he said. “It is no longer just a battle being fought in court.”
This plan of action—to fight it out politically—was chalked out at a late-night meeting attended by Sonia, Rahul, A.K. Antony, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Ahmed Patel, Kapil Sibal and Singhvi.
Sibal and Singhvi, who are handling the case, cautioned that the Supreme Court could consider the pointed questions raised by the High Court. And that would mean further embarrassment.
That's when Sonia declared that she and Rahul would appear before the trial court. She insisted they would go to court the very next day. What if the court refused to grant bail? “Then I will go to jail,” she replied. The legal team, however, persuaded her to seek some more time to explore options.
For this is no easy case. The High Court said in its judgment: “...the gravity of the allegations levelled against petitioners has a fraudulent flavour involving a national political party and so, serious imputations smacking of criminality levelled against petitioners need to be properly looked into.”
The court concluded that it had no hesitation to put it on record that the modus operandi of the accused showed a “criminal intent”.
The case, filed by BJP leader Subramanian Swamy, alleges that Sonia and Rahul, along with the other accused, illegally grabbed assets of the National Herald newspaper. The Congress had given an interest-free loan of 190 crore to Associated Journals Ltd, which published the National Herald. In 2008, AJL shut shop because of recurring losses.
In November 2010, a company named Young Indian was registered with Sonia and Rahul holding 38 per cent stakes each in it. The rest was held by Oscar Fernandes and Congress treasurer Motilal Vora.
Then came a mysterious twist. The Congress assigned the Rs.90-crore debt to Young Indian for Rs.50 lakh—it wrote off the remaining amount. So now, the AJL owed Young Indian 190 crore. In lieu of the debt, AJL transferred a large chunk of its shares to Young Indian. And that gave Young Indian control of AJL's prime properties—worth Rs.2,000 to 5,000 crore.
The Congress, however, faulted the High Court's observations. The main argument was that Young Indian was a Section 25 (nonprofit) company. “If the assets of AJL are sold, not a penny will come to Young Indian. It will only go to the shareholders of AJL, and the assets are owned by AJL and not by Young Indian,” said Sibal.
“No part of the income, not even a penny, has been given to Young Indian. So, what is the criminality?” asked Sibal. “The judge says that the Congress, which has a legacy of its own, cannot give loans to anybody. He says this smacks of criminal misconduct. I do not see how the grant of a loan has anything to do with criminality.”
Sibal referred to Section 13(A) of the Income Tax Act, which says that a political party can earn and spend money as it decides.
The Congress also contended that the Election Commission, in response to a petition filed by Swamy, had said Sections 29A and 29B of Representation of the People Act deals with the income of political parties, but there is no provision that deals with their expenditure.
Reacting to charges of political vendetta, the BJP said Swamy had filed the complaint in 2012, when he was not its member. “How can you blame the government for what is happening?” asked Parliamentary Affairs Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu. “They are insulting the court by saying this. We have nothing to do with the case.”
“Everything is before the court. Neither the Delhi Police, nor the CBI, nor the government is involved,” said Union Minister for Communications and Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad. “The law is not concerned about who is whose daughter-in-law, or who is whose son-in-law.”
The BJP also wondered aloud whether the cases filed against Modi and party president Amit Shah when the Congress-led UPA was in power also amounted to vendetta politics.
As of now, the winter session of Parliament seems to be in jeopardy. Said Minister of State for Commerce Nirmala Sitharaman, “It is the courts that will decide the matter. To use it [the case] as an argument against the government, which has serious issues of governance to be legislated upon, does not augur well.”
“The BJP is correct on technicalities,” said a Congress leader. “Some niceties and some technicalities may fall. But we cannot be faulted on politics.”
An arrangement to iron out differences on the crucial Goods & Services Tax bill had been worked out after Modi invited former prime minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia for a discussion over tea.
The Congress, however, was in no mood to find a resolution. A deadlock loomed. “The GST bill has gone for a sky walk,” said Anand Sharma, the Congress party's deputy leader in the Rajya Sabha.
“The ball is in the Congress’s court,” said a Union minister. “We have made it clear that we are ready to discuss all issues in Parliament. They are stalling Parliament, and it is not even clear what exactly are they protesting.”
Even as the Congress pilloried the government, Modi tweeted birthday greetings to Sonia, who turned 69 on December 9. Naidu, too, wished her well over the phone. The warm wishes, however, do not look sufficient to bring about a thaw in relations.