When Everything Is Politics

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This is one controversy the Congress first family could have done without. The controversy surrounding the ‘acquisition’ of National Herald has taken the focus away from issues the Gandhis were going to town about. By Surya Gangadharan

“It does not have the trappings of a wider political drama, you can block Parliament for the Land Acquisition Bill, that is an ‘A grade’ script, but to block it for the National Herald case is ‘B grade’ nonsense.”

– Shiv Vishvanathan, sociologist

Congress has no business raising in Parliament what is a private matter over a trust controlled by the Gandhis. It is a matter for the courts, and the government has nothing to do with it. - Ramachandra Guha, Historian

The question is, why the Gandhi family is making such a political spectacle over the National Herald affair, which is a legal issue?

Does it reflect hubris after the party’s better than expected showing in the Bihar polls where it piggybacked on the Grand Alliance? Is this part of the effort to “build Rahul Gandhi” who is widely expected to take over as party president? Or does it reflect deeper concerns?

Subramaniam Swamy, who filed the case in 2012, was not a BJP member at that time. He has no doubt the Gandhi family is engaged in blatant land grab. The family floated the Young Indian company where they are majority owners with 76% stake. Swamy alleges that using Congress party funds, Young Indian bought National Herald lock, stock and barrel and then shut it down. National Herald owns property in Delhi, Mumbai and other cities worth, according to Swamy, around 2000 crore.

As the judge issuing the summons put it: “From the complaint and the evidence led so far, it appears YI (Young Indian) was in fact created as a sham or a cloak to convert public money to personal use or as a special purpose vehicle for acquiring control over Rs 2000 crore worth of assets.”

This is not the only case of its kind. Way back in the 1980s, Congressmen were asked to donate a day’s salary towards building the party headquarters on Rajendra Prasad Road. Many did but no headquarters came up. Rather, the building you see is the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation which, mysteriously, became part of the private Rajiv Gandhi Charitable Trust. The trust was founded in 2002 by the Gandhi family.

According to media reports, the trust was recently directed by a revenue court in Amethi, UP, to return 65 acres of land that it had bought at an auction by a private company. The land originally belonged to the UP State Industrial Development Corporation and was, apparently, only leased to the private company. Wheels within wheels!

All attention on the Gandhi family on Dec 19, when they will appear before a lower court judge in Delhi to answer the charges. While prima facie a case exists, it’s to be seen if there was any malafide intent and that has to be proved.

Sonia Gandhi has vowed to fight it out: “I am the daughter-in-law of Mrs Indira Gandhi and I am not afraid of anybody or anything,” she told a private TV news channel in an interview. Son Rahul was even more combative: “It is being driven by the Prime Minister’s office,” he said and defended his family’s role in the Herald affair: “There is a legal provision. It (National Herald) is a not-for-profit organization and not a paisa can be taken out.”

Unfortunately, the party’s record in office is still fairly recent in public memory, especially the scams and scandals. Not surprisingly, the family may not have too many friends and sympathizers in this case. The only one to come out publicly in their favour is Mamata Bannerjee of the TMC, who was burnt by the investigation agencies probing the Saradha scam. In that sense, the family is in rather dubious company.

The Aam Aadmi Party too, which talks the loudest about political corruption, has maintained a studied silence. Perhaps, the actions of both leaders hint at which way the political winds could blow in the years ahead.

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