New Delhi/ Nagpur: A Delhi court’s directive that Congress president Sonia Gandhi, her son and party vice president Rahul Gandhi and five others appear before it on 19 December in connection with the alleged breach of trust and misappropriation of funds in the National Herald case threatens to push them and their party into an existential crisis far worse than the one inflicted by the series of electoral debacles, including the 2014 General Election, informed sources.
As the party’s chief, Sonia faces the herculean task of pulling herself, her aides and the party out of the quagmire that threatens to suck them in. She faces the spectre of five main but interlinked challenges — personal, political, ethical, legal and organisational — that could take a toll of her, her family and her party.
While the legality of the case would be decided by the court, at the personal level, it threatens to eclipse the halo the Congress president had acquired when she renounced the prime minister’s post in 2004 and installed Manmohan Singh in South Bloc. That single act had invested her with an enviable moral authority and raised her personal and political stock, status and standing dramatically.
The National Herald case might dent — if not undo — that, damage her image and reduce her stature, something the party and its leaders will go all-out to prevent. Moored to the Nehru-Gandhi family, the Congress party’s own future is inextricably tied to the fate of its top leaders.
As it is, one of the Gandhi family members, Sonia’s son-in-law Robert Vadra is already under the scanner over his land deals. The Congress has learned it the hard way the high cost of a damaged image when Singh’s clean persona was sullied by allegations of scams, ranging from 2G to coal and more, in the UPA government. Rahul had attempted to repair that image and distance his family from the mudslinging when he donned the mantle of a crusader against corruption by trashing the ordinance that the UPA cabinet had cleared to provide a shield to convicted lawmakers. And now there are allegations against him and his mother which, if proved, could impact their image and politics, leave the party rudderless and allow the BJP to chortle over the growing possibility of a “Congress-mukt’’ India.
Indeed, the latest events have shifted the ongoing narrative from the intolerance of the RSS-VHP-BJP supporters to corruption and once again linked the Congress leadership to it. In the petition that he filed in 2012, Subramanian Swamy — then Janata Party chief and now a BJP member — has accused the Congress bosses of cheating, criminal conspiracy, criminal breach of trust and dishonest misappropriation of property in the National Herald case. At the core of the allegation is that a front company Young Indian — in which Sonia and Rahul had a stake of 76 percent — was set up and used in 2010 to acquire the assets and properties worth thousands of crores of the debt-ridden Associated Journals Ltd, the publisher of the now-defunct National Herald. The Delhi High Court, which rejected the Congress leaders’ pleas for quashing the summons against them to appear on 8 December, also said that their conduct in the case “smacks of criminality”.
As questions about the legality and ethics of such a move swirl around the Congress leadership, Sonia appears to have taken a leaf from her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi’s book to deal with the latest crisis. The three-fold strategy involves battling the case legally in the court, projecting it as a political issue in Parliament and outside and turning it into an emotional issue on the streets to win public sympathy and support.
The big question is whether the 69-year old leader will be able to do this? Will she be able to turn 19 December 19 — when she, Rahul and others intend to appear before the court — into her Belchi moment in the manner in which Indira had done in August 1977 six months after her abject defeat in the Lok Sabha polls? Back then, Belchi had helped Indira revive her political career and fortunes when she rode an elephant through slush to the village in Bihar where Dalits had been massacred.
Invoking Indira Gandhi
Not surprisingly, on Tuesday Sonia signalled her intent to fight back by invoking the former prime minister’s name. “I am the daughter-in-law of Mrs Indira Gandhi and I am not afraid of anybody or anything. I am not scared,’’ she said even as she held a series of strategy meetings to deal with the crisis. Some read a parallel in the summons issued during the Janata party regime in 1977 for for Indira Gandhi’s arrest on charges of corruption which was later rejected by the courts. Congress members in unison alleged a “political vendetta” against their top leaders.
“The Centre thinks they can stop me from asking questions about them by vendetta politics. That is not going to happen,’’ Rahul said. Abhishek Singhvi, Congress leader and Gandhis’ lawyer alleged a “political vendetta at its worst” and slammed the BJP for “using proxy litigation” to target Congress leaders. Other party bigwigs slammed the BJP government of turning a blind eye to the charges of corruption against its chief ministers in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan or Chattisgarh. So far, only the Trinamool Congress’s Mamata Banerjee has appeared to commiserate with the Gandhis over the directive to appear in court.
The political battle over the case echoed in Parliament as Congress members blocked proceedings in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha on Tuesday, prompting the BJP to ask whether the main opposition was questioning the judiciary. “Can you get parliamentary remedy to a judicial process?’’ railed an exasperated Parliamentary Affairs Minister Venkaiah Nadu as the government-Congress confrontation intensified. The passage of GST and other reforms bills appeared bleak and the rest of the winter session of Parliament seemed to hurtle towards another washout.
The Congress has already begun to hit the streets and is likely to intensify its campaign in the coming days. Sonia’s birthday on 9 December has provided the impetus to party workers to replace the celebrations with a determination to launch a countrywide struggle against the BJP’s attempt “to malign” the family.
Sonia had on an earlier occasion in 2006, in a deft move, warded off the threat to her image. As the head of the National Advisory Council she was caught in the office of profit controversy that would have attracted disqualification. She stepped down from the NAC chair, quit her Lok Sabha seat, recontested from Rae Bareli and returned with a thumping majority, her image intact.
But the threat this time is far more severe. Despite the intent to fight out the case, there are fears that some of the mud will stick during the long-drawn out legal battle with a pugnacious Swamy snapping at their heels. Party strategists are aware that a political and ideological fight is considerably different from a legal battle where any judicial observation, reprimand or indictment could inflict a heavier damage than the onslaught of an opposition party or leader.
As it is, the party is grappling with the challenge of trying to resuscitate, ramp up and reinvigorate the organisation which saw its first faint ray of hope for the future when it piggy-backed on the grand alliance in the Bihar Assembly elections to win 27 seats, wrested the Ratlam parliamentary seat from the BJP in MP and performed well in the rural areas in the recent panchayat elections in Gujarat. Wiped out in most states across the country, the party is finding it difficult to craft a reliable support base, increase its social appeal or package Rahul into a leader who can pull crowds, fetch votes, take on Modi or even match the rising graph of some region-based leaders like JD-U’s Nitish Kumar. And now the National Herald controversy and legal case threatens to undermine the reputation and credibility of its top leadership.
This, in turn, stands to impact the future of a wobbling Congress.