Can Sonia become Indira?
As I write this, the Parliament is paralysed by the Congress members. Here, the Congress is not agitating on the “demerits” of the Modi-government’s legislative proposals such as the Goods and Service Tax (GST) or Land Acquisition measures. Nor is it demanding actions against the “corrupt” BJP-Chief Ministers in the states, as was the case before. This time, the stalling, which the Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad terms as “protesting”, is against the “political vendetta” of the Modi government against the Gandhi family, particularly Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi in “the National Herald case”.
As of today, the Gandhis have not been pronounced guilty in the National Herald case, which is about how a newly floated NGO , “Young Indian”, having 76 per cent shares of the Gandhis acquired the National Herald and its properties all over the country worth thousands of crores (the National Herald building in Delhi alone is worth 1600 crore rupees, not to speak of other properties in Mumbai, Bhopal, Lucknow, Hyderabad and Chandigarh) and how the Congress party waived off a loan of 90 crore rupees from the Congress party fund (which is tax free and under the income tax related laws is debarred from engaging in commercial transactions). The “Herald House” in Delhi is a prime location and land it is based on was allotted by the government for the exclusive purpose of bringing about a news publication.
The case against Gandhi predates the Modi government and was lodged by Subramaniam Swamy, then not a member of the ruling BJP, in his individual capacity. What the Delhi High Court did on December 7 was to dismiss the pleas of the Gandhis that they should not be asked to appear personally in the Lower Court that had summoned them for hearing the case. The High Court found prima facie grounds of “criminality” on the parts of the Gandhis in taking over the National Herald newspaper and its sister publications in March 2010 by paying a sum of just 50 lakh rupees, knowing pretty well that the debt-ridden paper has got 90 core rupees from the Congress, which the party ironically waived off as bad loan, and that newspaper could have easily cleared its debts by disposing off one of its properties that it has all over the country.
The High Court also took note of “the conflict of interest” by the Congress treasurer Motilal Vohra, who used the party fund of 90 crore rupees for the Herald group of which he himself was the Chairman and Managing Director in 2010 when the deal matetialised. Vohra is also one of the shareholders of “Young Indian” with 12 per cent stake, the other being the Congress leader Oscar Fernades (12 per cent). The Court also wondered how the Herald, which was debt ridden, transformed itself to be a profit-making venture in just one year after being taken over by Young Indian—it made a net profit of 27.4 crore rupees in 2011-12 ( incidentally, the Herald House has given its floors on rent to various establishments, including the passport office that is managed by the Tata Consultancy Service).
However, as I have said, the Gandhis have not yet been declared guilty. I am sure the top legal brains of the Congress will argue how the issue is essentially an internal matter of the Congress, in the sense that the Gandhis had dominant shares in the National Herald too and how the publications, started by late the Jawaharlal Nehru during the freedom struggle, were essentially the voices of the Congress party. Maybe the Courts will be convinced by this line of argument and dismiss the plea of Subramaniam Swamy, though the latter has strong legal merits. But as of now, the basic point is that the case, which predates the Modi government, is completely under judicial purview and has nothing to do with political manipulations by the Modi government against the Gandhi family that the Congress is making us to believe in.
Secondly, this is not a healthy sign for the Indian democracy, when the principal opposition party is virtually denigrating the judicial verdicts by turning them to be political footballs inside the Parliament. The Congress is ridiculing these judgments as the results of “the arm-twisting the judiciary by the Prime Minister’s Office” and still insisting the correctness of its approaches. The Herald case is not the only instance point. After a Delhi Court clearly said that no case can be made against junior minister General VK Singh over its alleged comparison of the dogs with Dalits (the Court clearly said that the conclusion that General Singh termed Dalits to be dogs is too farfetched), the Congress stalls the proceedings demanding the sacking of General Singh not only as a minister but also as a Member of the Parliament.
Thirdly, the Congress seems to have made it obvious that more than merits and demerits of the pending legislative proposals of the government, it will attach prime importance to its “politics” (and the political futures of the members of its “First Family”, the Gandhis) in their passage. In other words, for the Congress, things like “non-partisan support” , “economic development” and “national interests” are not important inside the Parliament. So far, we have been witness to parties fighting bitter political fights outside, but working together on important issues inside the Parliament. But it is clear now that the Congress strategy under the Gandhis now is to ensure that the Modi government does not have the legislative approvals of its measures, come what may. From now onwards, we perhaps will see ugly battles between the Congress and the Modi government everywhere. This, perhaps, explains Sonia Gandhi’s strong remark, following the Court’s observations in the Herald case: “I am not scared. I am the daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi.”
This remark is premised on the fact that in between 1977and 1980, the then Janata Party government harassed Indira Gandhi (who was badly defeated in the 1977 general elections following the Emergency days) so much that she got huge public sympathy and came back with thumping majority in the mid-term elections in 1980 as the Morarji Desai-led government could not complete its term because of the internal rebellions in the ruling party. Sonia thinks that as it happened in the case of her mother-in-law, she will also emerge victorious and bring back the Congress to power again sooner rather than later by fighting the “vindictive politics” of Modi.
Are the two situations really comparable? Let us see what happened to Indira after 1977. That time a seemingly vindictive Home Minister Charan Singh first sent her to jail with allegations that she had made money by selling jeeps to the Army and signed a deal with a French oil company whose bid was higher than all other bids, but the case was dismissed by the Magistrate and she emerged a martyr. Against the will of Prime Minister Desai, her passport was impounded and telephones tapped. Shah Commission was set up to look into her excesses during the Emergency days. Though she entered the Parliament subsequently through a by-election from Chikmagalur in Karnataka, she was soon expelled from the Lok Sabha—this time the charge against her being that she obstructed officials in an ongoing investigation of the Maruti Company, then owned by her son Sanjay Gandhi. Her martyr’s image got a huge boost in the process.
In my considered opinion, the situation is totally different today. There is no trace of any personal harassment of Sonia or for that matter Rahul by the Modi government. Both of them freely roam around the globe. The government has not started any investigation either against Sonia or Rahul. The Herald case, it may be repeated, predated the Modi government. Secondly, compared to a very strongly opinionated Home Minister in Charan Singh, the present Home Minister Rajnath Singh is too gentle. In fact, as I have argued elsewhere, majority of the ministerial colleagues of Modi suffer from an acute sense of inferiority complex; they will try to do everything to please their opponents by overlooking their genuine supporters. Besides, the political rumours in Delhi—and many BJP members agree with it—are that Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has more friends and supporters in the Congress than in his own party. Thus, there are no visible signs of the Gandhis losing any iota of their perks, privileges and clouts under the Modi regime. That was not the case with Indira Gandhi during the Janata rule.
Be that as it may, the Desai government fell not because of the rising popularity of Indira Gandhi; it fell because of the shenanigans within the then Janata party, thanks to the over-ambition of a Home Minister who wanted to be the Prime Minister with the support of none other than Indira Gandhi, whom he single- handedly had harassed earlier by ignoring the advice of the Prime Minister. Though many within the Modi cabinet, or for that matter the BJP as a party, are not comfortable with Modi’s style of functioning, it will be too premature to say that there is a Charan Singh in Modi’s cabinet.
So will Sonia Gandhi succeed the way her mother-in-law did?
By Prakash Nanda