Gandhis In Court: Can Sonia Pull Off An Indira?

18/12/2015 7:27 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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RAEBARELI, INDIA- APRIL 2: UPA Chairperson and Congress President Sonia Gandhi being welcomed by the supporters during road show before filing her nomination for Lok Sabha election on April 2, 2014 in Raebareli, India. Gandhi, 67, who will be seeking re-election from the seat, which been a Nehru-Gandhi family bastion since the 1960s. Indira Gandhi won it for the first time in 1967, taking over after the death of her husband Feroz, who was also an MP from here. Gandhi is a three time MP from Rae Bareli, including once elected in a by-election in 2006. (Photo by Deepak Gupta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

NEW DELHI -- Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi will appear in court for the first time in their lives on Saturday.

The two leaders of the Congress Party have been summoned to a trial court in Delhi to respond to allegations of misappropriation of funds and cheating, raised by Bhartiya Janata Party's firebrand leader Subramanian Swamy in the National Herald case.

"I am the daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi. I'm not scared of anyone," Gandhi said, last week.

The feverishly anticipated court appearance is a throw back to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's arrest on charges of corruption following the two-year long Emergency period, which she imposed, and her defeat in the 1977 national election.

Her days in court are widely regarded to have unleashed a wave of sympathy, cast her as a lone figure, and revived her political fortunes. The Congress Party swept to power in 1980. "She got the aura of victimhood and that was encashed within one year," said Ashutosh Misra, a political science professor at Lucknow University.

While the overarching political scenario has now completely changed: the Bharatiya Janata Party is leading a majority government, unlike the coalition under the Janata Party after the Emergency, and the Congress Party is on the fringes. The Gandhis, however, could still use their day in court to exploit the nascent anti-incumbency feelings against the BJP and advance the Congress Party's resurgence.

"It could work in their favour if the government bothers them a lot," said Badri Narayan Tiwari, a professor at the G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad. "The Indian public can be very sympathetic."

I am the daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi. I'm not scared of anyone.

READ: National Herald Case: A Chronology Of Events

Political Opportunity

Although its top leaders have been thrust into an obviously embarrassing situation, the Congress Party is leveraging this court appearence to unite its members in a show of solidarity, garner sympathy, and cast the Modi government as being on a vendetta-seeking mission.

Everyone from chief ministers and state leaders of the Congress Party to its youth workers are in Delhi to support the Gandhis on Saturday, and its top brass is likely to make an appearance at the Patiala House Court. But the Congress Party has to ensure that any agitation on its part does not appear as challenging the court.

Citing Congress Party sources, it has been widely reported that the Gandhis could make a grand gesture by not seeking bail, and opting to spend a night in jail. Political analysts recall that it was grand gestures on Indira Gandhi's part, especially her riding an elephant to visit Dalit victims of atrocities in the obscure village of Belchi in Bihar, which turned the tables.

While there is a natural throw back to Indira Gandhi, the political scenarios are different: the Janata Party was more like an aberration, which came to power in the post-Emergency phase, but the BJP is strong and dominant. Although Indira Gandhi led the country down its most anti-democratic period, she still retained enough support and sympathy to sabotage the Janata Party.

Even now, her legacy of being India's first woman leader, who defeated Pakistan in the 1971 Bangladesh war, overshadows the time she undermined core values of democracy to stay in power, according to Tiwari. "When circumstances arise, we look for symbols from the past. Now, this may or may not be a conscious decision on part of the Congress Party," he said.

Fighting back from the sidelines, the Congress Party over the past year has sensed and capitalised on the anti-incumbency feeling against the BJP.

Besides gaining from its alliance with Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Rashtriya Janata Dal Lalu Prasad Yadav in the Bihar Election, it has a couple of significant victories: major wins in Gujarat rural areas in the civic polls, taking back Ratlam Lok Sabha constituency in Madhya Pradesh, and the Lohardaga Assembly seat in Jharkhand, in recent by-elections.

"Congress is sensing that there is a tipping point which they can encash by taking some bold decisions. It is a fair gamble," said Misra.

The Indian public can be very sympathetic.

READ: Dear Narendra Modi: Here Is What You Are Doing Wrong

Swamy's Day In Court

The National Herald case is the result of a private complaint filed in 2012 by Swamy, who accused the Gandhis of creating a shell company to acquire property worth Rs. 5000 crores belonging to the now defunct English-daily National Herald, founded by Rahul's great grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister.

During the Emergency, Swamy, a Harvard University educated-economist, fled abroad to avoid arrest, and he spread the word about the arbitrary detentions, crackdown on free speech and human rights violations unfolding in India. Defying the arrest warrant against him, Swamy famously returned to give a speech in Parliament and escaped before he could be apprehended.

Last month, Swamy, who led the Janata Party for over a decade before merging it with the BJP in 2013, accused Rahul of being British, and asked that he be stripped of his Indian citizenship.

READ: Rahul Gandhi Is A British Citizen, Subramanian Swamy Claims

On Thursday, Swamy wrote to Modi asking that either the army or the paramilitary forces be deployed near the Patiala House Court to keep law and order.

While Swamy is finally having his day in court against the Gandhis, the bad blood over the National Herald case doesn't make it any easier for the Modi government to get critical work done during the Winter Session of parliament, which is turning out to be a washout. Passage of the Goods and Services Tax Bill is looking more and more like a pipe dream.

While senior leaders of the BJP have repeated that the National Herald Case is the result of a private complaint from 2012, Congress Party leaders have pushed the "vendetta" rhetoric against Modi and his government.

READ: Subramanian Swamy's New Hindutva Outfit Is For English-Speaking, Social Media Savvy Indians

When circumstances arise, we look for symbols from the past.

BJP In The Dock

The Gandhis appearance in court on Saturday will also remind the public that the BJP doesn't exactly have a squeaky clean record, and its leaders have been less than forthcoming about their own alleged misdeeds.

And Congress Party leaders will use this as an opportunity to recount the Lalit Modi scandal involving Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, the Vyapam Scam under Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, and the latest corruption allegations made by Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal against Finance Minister Arun Jaitley.

For the public, Misra explained, a political defeat is far worse than a legal one.

"If I say today that Congress Party is equally corrupt. People will say the Congress is not the government. We have punished the Congress. But the BJP has no excuse," he said.

READ: GST- India's Biggest Economic Reform

READ: Kejriwal Drags Jaitley Into CBI Raid Fiasco

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