Backhand return

46BSonia Strategic retreat: Sonia and Rahul Gandhi at the Congress office in Delhi after attending a hearing in the National Herald case | Getty Images

The Congress opts not to play politics over the National Herald case

  • The strategy now is to attack the Modi government for going after the opposition leaders, which includes those from the Congress.

A relaxed looking Rahul Gandhi, dressed casually in a grey sweatshirt and jeans, and accompanied by his two pet dogs, arrived at 10 Janpath, the residence of his mother, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, around 11am on December 19. They both were to appear before a trial court a few hours later. Rahul changed into a formal kurta pyjama and a black waistcoat before he left for the court.

The relaxed demeanour was much in contrast to the hype that had been created around the court appearance. By the time Rahul arrived at 10 Janpath, party workers had already gathered in large numbers at the Congress headquarters, which is next door. The workers were led into an enclosure that was set up in the lawns outside the party office. Numbering around 2,000, they raised slogans condemning Prime Minister Narendra Modi and expressing support for their leaders.

Senior Congress leaders, MPs and state leaders also trooped in around noon. It was a show of strength, but a toned down version of what had originally been planned to coincide with the appearance of Sonia and Rahul, along with the other accused in the National Herald case, in the court of metropolitan magistrate Loveleen in the Patiala House district court. The case was filed by BJP leader Subramanian Swamy, alleging wrongful appropriation of assets of the National Herald.

Swamy has alleged that Sonia and Rahul, along with the other accused, used fraudulent means to gain control over the assets of the National Herald. Associated Journals Limited (AJL), which shut down its publications, including the National Herald, in 2008, owed 090 crore to the Congress. This debt was assigned to the company Young Indian for Rs50 lakh. Sonia and Rahul have 38 per cent shares each in Young Indian, which was formed in November 2010. Subsequently, a large chunk of shares of AJL were transferred to Young Indian in lieu of the debt.

Just a day before the hearing, Sonia said, “We are all set for tomorrow.” Keeping alive the speculation on whether the Gandhis would seek bail or choose to go to jail, she refused to answer any questions on their legal strategy. However, a decision had already been taken to deal with the issue in a straight and simple legal manner rather than indulge in any political grandstanding.

According to sources, the plan originally was that party leaders would march to the court. State leaders were to be present in large numbers. However, there was a rethink, and a meeting of state Congress chiefs and legislature party leaders to discuss the logistics of the show of strength was called off. Senior leaders like Ghulam Nabi Azad, P. Chidambaram and A.K. Antony advised against such a move. They referred to the party being not able to sustain its protests on the issue in Parliament. It was also felt that the party should not be seen as challenging the judiciary.

After all the hype, Sonia and Rahul, accompanied by Priyanka Vadra, dutifully appeared before the court. Sonia and Rahul got off their cars outside the gates of the court complex, choosing to walk in. Interestingly, Swamy drove in and drove out. The message that the Gandhis wanted to send out was that they respected the court and would abide by its decisions. They smiled as they walked in and the smiles were there when they got out, too. Inside the court, their lawyers did not waste any time in applying for bail. All the accused were granted bail on a personal bond of Rs50,000 and a surety each.

There was tremendous hype preceding the court hearing. Swamy tweeted that the court appearance would turn over a new leaf in India’s political history. However, the hearing was over in just seven minutes and soon after, the leaders came back to the party office. Addressing reporters, Sonia said the Modi government was targeting its political rivals and was using the government agencies to do so. “None of us will get scared by all these,” she said. Rahul said Modi was levelling false allegations against leaders of opposition parties to put pressure on them. “Modiji talks about a Congress-mukt Bharat. India will never be devoid of the Congress,” he said.

By evening, the party appeared to have gone through the routine of the court appearance, wiser in its realisation that this could not be an issue it could go to town with in its efforts to take on the Modi government and that this could at best be one among the various issues over which it could attack the government.

There was a sharp contrast between the approach of the leaders on December 19 and their show of bravado on the day their lawyers sought a date for their court appearance. Striking an aggressive posture, Sonia had declared that she was Indira Gandhi’s daughter-in-law and was not scared of anyone.

In tune with the aggressive stance of the leaders, Congress MPs disrupted proceedings in Parliament. Comparisons were drawn with the cases filed against Indira by the Janata Party government in 1977. Some leaders spoke of how this could help the party bounce back. There were even indications that Sonia and Rahul would not seek bail.

However, there was a quick rethink, with the party leaders making the assessment that not allowing Parliament to function on account of the court summons was not going down well with the people. Soon, the reasons for holding up Parliamentary business changed.

It was also felt that there was little to gain by not seeking bail. There were discussions on whether Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal benefited in any manner by opting to go to jail last year in the defamation case filed against him by Union minister Nitin Gadkari. Kejriwal had to approach the court for bail a few days later. “We did not want that kind of a situation to occur,” said a Congress leader. “Moreover, the 1970s were a different time,” he said, elaborating that it would not go down well with the people if the Congress was seen as fighting for only one issue, protecting a family.

The strategy now is to attack the Modi government for going after the opposition leaders, which includes those from the Congress. “The BJP has been targeting opposition parties. In the Gujarat assembly, there have been attempts to silence the Congress. There have been raids on Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister [Virbhadra Singh]. In Arunachal Pradesh, the governor tried to topple the Congress government. You recently saw how the Delhi chief minister’s office was raided,” said Ghulam Nabi Azad.

In an effort to broadbase the attack on the Modi government, Azad said the BJP’s slogan “Congress-mukt Bharat” had changed to “opposition-mukt Bharat”.

The AJL, which owns the National Herald, has called an extraordinary meeting of its shareholders on January 21, 2016, to convert itself into a non-profit company. Randeep Surjewala, chairman of the Congress media department, said the meeting was a culmination of a process that had begun in 2011. “The Congress wants AJL to be a non-profit company so that no one can take away its assets,” he said.

It seems the Congress has decided to deal with the issue on legal and technical grounds rather than do politics over it.

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