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PARTY AFFAIRS

ED’s questioning of Rahul Gandhi becomes rallying point for Congress workers

Print edition : Aug 16, 2022 T+T-

ED’s questioning of Rahul Gandhi becomes rallying point for Congress workers

Congress workers being detained during a protest against party leader Rahul Gandhi’s interrogation by the Enforcement Directorate in the National Herald case, outside the AICC headquarters in New Delhi on June 21.

Congress workers being detained during a protest against party leader Rahul Gandhi’s interrogation by the Enforcement Directorate in the National Herald case, outside the AICC headquarters in New Delhi on June 21. | Photo Credit: VIJAY VERMA

Across the country, Congress workers took to the streets in large numbers to protest the Enforcement Directorate’s prolonged questioning of Rahul and Sonia Gandhi in the National Herald case.

The protests across the country triggered by the Enforcement Directorate’s marathon questioning of Congress MP Rahul Gandhi, and the summoning of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, in a case of money laundering involving the National Herald group, took everyone, perhaps even Congressmen, by surprise. The  case dates back to 2013 and is based on a complaint by BJP MP Subramanian Swamy. The prolonged questioning of Rahul Gandhi spurred Congress cadre into an unusual show of support from the ground for the Gandhi family. Party leaders in States where the Congress still has a presence stepped out and demonstrated, taking on the police in the process.

It was also an opportunity for Congress leaders recently eased out of leadership roles to show their loyalty. For other opposition parties, too, it was an occasion to castigate the government for “misuse” of central investigating agencies. In March, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar had underscored the importance of the opposition coming together against the BJP’s “political vendetta” launched in the form of selective raids by central investigating agencies. It is to be noted that no one from the ruling party has been raided. Curiously, the ED action against the Congress leadership in a case of alleged money laundering, coming as it does in the run-up to the presidential election, may have been intended to demoralise the opposition.

Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi and K.C. Venugopal during a Congress satyagraha against the ED questioning of Rahul Gandhi and the Agnipath scheme, in New Delhi on June 23.
Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi and K.C. Venugopal during a Congress satyagraha against the ED questioning of Rahul Gandhi and the Agnipath scheme, in New Delhi on June 23. | Photo Credit: SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

For five days in a row, Rahul Gandhi was summoned for questioning and through this period Congress workers protested continuously. On June 13, his first day at the ED office, he was questioned for almost 10 hours. The Congress cried harassment, and this perception helped the party galvanise support among its cadre. In Delhi, Chandigarh, Telangana, Assam and Gujarat, Congress workers clashed with the police. The Congress has not mobilised support on this scale for any other issue for some time now, not even on issues such as price rise, unemployment and, recently, the Agnipath scheme. For its beleaguered top leadership, this was a vote of confidence from the cadre notwithstanding dissensions within. 

The protests

The party headquarters in Delhi resembled a besieged fortress because of the heavy police deployment. Almost the entire party leadership took to the streets and courted arrest. Senior leaders like P. Chidambaram, Ashok Gehlot, K.C. Venugopal, Adhir Ranjan Choudhary, Randeep Surjewala and Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel got into scuffles with the police as they attempted to lead a “satyagraha” to the ED office. Some of them received blows and suffered injuries. (Chidambaram tweeted that three policemen crashed into him and he barely escaped but with a hairline fracture.) Not only was such widespread participation unusual, but the reprisal was equally unmindful of the age or status of the protesting legislators. Adhir Ranjan Choudhary, MP, filed a police complaint after he suffered injuries on his face and jaw. The police stopped Congress workers marching towards the party headquarters, where the leadership was practically under siege, and also detained some leaders for a few hours at the Tughlaq Road Police Station. While Rahul Gandhi was being questioned, many senior leaders like Digvijay Singh were seen squatting in protest in front of the ED headquarters.

Witch-hunt?

Senior Congress leaders interacting with the media after meeting President Ram Nath Kovind, in Delhi on June 20. 
Senior Congress leaders interacting with the media after meeting President Ram Nath Kovind, in Delhi on June 20.  | Photo Credit: R.V. MOORTHY

Going by media reports, some 459 Congress leaders were detained, including Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge. Other opposition parties criticised the police action on Congress workers and leaders and the ED questioning of the Gandhis. Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Mrityunjay Tiwari told the media that the targeting of opposition leaders was a ploy to divert attention from real issues and was meant to suppress the voice of the opposition. Former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti said a “witch-hunt” was on against the opposition. The Trinamool Congress, on the other hand, was critical of the Congress’ protests.

The case

The case against the Gandhis has its origins in a private complaint filed by Subramanian Swamy in 2012 regarding transactions of Young Indian Pvt Ltd, a holding company of The Associated Journals Ltd, publishers of The National Herald. After a trial court took cognisance of an income-tax investigation based on the complaint, the ED registered a fresh case under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act. The allegation was that the Congress shifted AJL’s 100 per cent shares to Young Indian for a payment of just Rs.50 lakh. The Congress contends that there was no money to launder at AJL and that the party had given a loan of Rs.90 crore in 100 tranches to AJL between 2001-02 and 2010-11. Two thirds of the loan went into the payment of salaries, gratuity, PF, VRS payouts, and other statutory obligations to journalists and non-journalists and infrastructural costs such as electricity bills.

The case against the Gandhis has its origins in a private complaint filed by Subramanian Swamy in 2012.
The case against the Gandhis has its origins in a private complaint filed by Subramanian Swamy in 2012. | Photo Credit: SRINATH M

In 2008, publication of The National Herald was suspended owing to financial constraints; subsequently, efforts were initiated to revive the publication. In 2011, at an extraordinary general body meeting of AJL, the shareholders resolved to transfer its shares to YIPL, a not-for-profit company. Subsequently, the Rs.90-crore debt was converted to equity.

The BJP’s narrative, however, claims that the Congress benefited by forming the holding company Young Indian. By doing so, goes the claim, the Gandhi family transferred to itself Rs. 2,000 crore in shares.

“The case against the Gandhis has its origin in a private complaint by Subramanian Swamy in 2012.”

According to a report titled “The Bluff, the Bluster and the Lies” published in TheNational Herald on June 16 by the editor-in-chief, the IT department had valued AJL properties at Rs.350 crore, therefore the figure of Rs 2,000 crore was at best imaginary. It also stated that no FIR had been registered till date against anyone.

Related Allegations

The allegations, the report said, are that YIPL, a charitable holding, had taken the properties of AJL, which was founded in 1937; that the Gandhis were shareholders of YIPL and owned AJL property worth Rs.2,000 crore; and that funds were illegally transferred from AJL to YIPL. In 2016, the report said, YIPL surrendered its registration for income-tax exemption as it did not have sufficient funds for charity. It said AJL continued to be in possession of all its properties and YIPL neither controlled nor owned any of those properties. It denied that Priyanka Gandhi was a shareholder of Young Indian and an owner of AJL, as Young Indian was a Section 25 not-for-profit charitable company, which meant that it could not transfer any of its properties to any individual or company other than to another Section 25 charitable company. Under these circumstances, no monetary transaction could happen and that, as a corollary, ruled out money laundering.

Congress interim president Sonia Gandhi.
Congress interim president Sonia Gandhi. | Photo Credit: K. Abhinaya/PTI

The Narendra Modi government has defended the ED action on the grounds that no one is above the law. Yet the frequency of ED raids on opposition leaders, media houses and online news portals suggests that there is more to it than meets the eye.

Opposition leaders who are already under the ED scanner for money laundering and similar offences include Congress leaders P. Chidambaram, his son, Karti Chidambaram, D.K. Shivakumar; Sanjay Raut and Anil Parab of the Shiv Sena, Abhishek Banerji of the Trinamool Congress, Farooq Abdullah of the National Conference, Nawab Malik and Ajit Pawar of the NCP, and Satyendra Jain of the Aam Aadmi Party, who has been arrested by the ED.

The raids on the properties of opposition party members have also been a talking point. A few days before the Assembly election in Tamil Nadu, the Income-Tax office conducted a raid on the properties of Senthamarai, daughter of the DMK chief M.K. Stalin. Earlier, senior DMK leader E. Velu’s house was “searched”, according to media reports. Investigative agencies also conducted a “search” on the properties of Ashok Gehlot’s associates in Rajasthan. BSP chief Mayawati, too, is facing a probe in a disproportionate assets case that has been going on for years.

The saga of the ED questioning of the Gandhis is unlikely to end soon. Sonia Gandhi has got a  reprieve for the time being because of her health but questioning is expected to resume in July.