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National Herald case: where did the Gandhis go wrong?

Vivek Katju | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 12:29 IST

The politics

  • Congress has decided not to appeal against the High Court order in the National Herald case
  • The party seeks to play the victim card
  • BJP needs will need to handle the matter carefully

The questions

  • Why did they use questionable methods to bail out Associated Journals?
  • Why were the assets of Associated Journals transferred to a company controlled by Gandhis?

It is by now clear that the Congress party leadership has decided to convert the National Herald case to a political battle and, if necessary, take it to the streets. It senses an opportunity to don the cloak of political victimhood and repeat what Indira Gandhi did so successfully in 1978.

It has decided not to appeal the High Court order in the Supreme Court. The thinking is that country will not look to the technicalities of the legal case but focus on the so called assault that the Modi government has mounted on the Gandhis and other Congress leaders. The party obviously feels that the Gandhis will gain public sympathy and political mileage irrespective of the fate of the case.

Read more: Time to forget GST? Cong alleges BJP witch-hunt against Sonia and Rahul

The Congress' approach notwithstanding it is important to look at the issues that the case has raised and its implications for the political life of India.

The background

When Subramanian Swamy raised the matter in 2012, an important issue that came up was what constituted legitimate political activities of parties. The Congress had taken the plea that it had given a loan of over Rs 90 crore to Associated Journals, the company that owned the National Herald newspaper as it was the vehicle to promote Gandhi-Nehru thought. It asserted that the party was wedded to the thinking of these leaders and so it was perfectly in order for it, as a political party, to give such a loan.

The Congress party has moved much beyond Gandhi and Nehru though it invokes these icons regularly. The essence of the Nehru approach to nation building was the centrality of the state in the economy. Since the Manmohan Singh inspired reforms beginning with 1991 and the role of the state reduced in all aspects of the country's economic life.

Read more: National Herald case: Arun Jaitley rejects Congress' 'political vendetta' comment

Besides, socialism with its emphasis on an egalitarian society has been abandoned. The word itself never figures in any Congress document. It is ironic that recently it figured in the Rajya Sabha unanimous resolution on intolerance.

Swamy dismissed the contention that Congress acted for political reasons. His plea was that the Congress party's actions were motivated by the desire to ensure that the prime real estate owned by the Associated Journals passed into the hands of a clutch of persons, principally the Gandhis.

National Herald Case_EMBED

Photo: Sajjad Hussain/AFP

If this case proceeds to the higher courts then the question of the legitimate ambit of political activities will inevitably come up for their scrutiny. This will have long term implications for all parties. Up to now all political parties have tended to believe that any activity they undertake is by definition political. That proposition may be tested in the courts. That would not be liked by our political class as a whole. It may open a can of worms.

How the Congress responded

Another important issue relates to the manner in which the Congress party decided to handle this entire matter. The fact is that the National Herald which played a great role in the Indian media at one time, lost its lustre. Its relevance for the party's public outreach was also lost. It was therefore appropriate for the party to bite the bullet and close it down.

Clearly, the party felt that it had to ensure that the employees of the National Herald did not suffer. However, all this could have been done in a manner without involving the Young Indian, the non profit company set up in 2010. Why did the party choose the prima facie questionable path of doing so? It will have to answer this question in the courts and that is what it should focus on. Neither the disruption of Parliament nor street agitations can dismiss this question?

It will also have to answer the question politically. Surely one way to pay the debt of the Associated Journals was to divest the real estate or the other assets of the company. Why did the Congress not take this approach?

Read more: National Herald case: Sonia and Rahul Gandhi to appear before Court on 19 Dec, Cong sees political vendetta

It is noteworthy that Young Indian is a company, although a non-profit one. According to a report, its objective is to engage in activities "to inculcate in the mind of Indian youth commitment to the ideal of a democratic and secular society and provide for the application of its profits or income in pursuit thereof."

Read more: The albatross around the Gandhis' neck: what's the National Herald case?

As the Congress leadership has decided to make this a political matter, it is necessary for it to give details of what the company has earned since its incorporation and how that money has been spent in pursuit of its laudable objectives. Such transparency will strengthen its case in the court of public opinion where it has chosen to fight the Swamy assault.

A failure to do so will strengthen the impression that the entire exercise was not to promote the professed aims but to grab the real estate with Associated Journals.

The noble aims of Young Indian and the names of its principal share holders would have attracted wide support surely. It did not have to rely on the Associated Journals for its income or property. This is a legitimate question which the Congress should clarify.

There is another inescapable conclusion. The entire exercise has led to the transfer of the real estate assets of Associated Journals to a company controlled by the Gandhis in their individual capacities. The distinction between the Gandhis as office holders of the party and as individuals has been overlooked.

This is yet another illustration of Indian political parties becoming family fiefdoms. It is obvious that if the Congress wanted to project the image of a modern democratic party and not a personal jagir of the Gandhis, it would not have structured a deal where its current leaders would gain control in their individual capacities and where the rest of the shares are held by people close to them.

Read more: Rahul alleges political vendetta by govt in National Herald case

The only inference, not surprising at all, is that the Congress cannot imagine a person outside the Gandhi family to lead it.

The BJP will have to take on the Congress astutely. It has to avoid the clumsiness displayed by the Janata Party in 1978 and 1979. It has to ensure that the focus is on the legal case that the Gandhis face. Will it be able to play its cards subtly and with finesse?

First published: 9 December 2015, 5:42 IST
Vivek Katju @CatchNews

Vivek Katju is a retired diplomat who has served as India's ambassador to Afghanistan, Myanmar and Thailand.