National Herald slugfest could derail reforms (Column: Political Circus)

There are unlikely to be any outright winners in the latest confrontation between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress over the National Herald case which entails a legal battle involving Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.

What is more, there will be an unsavoury twist to the case with less than comforting implications for the BJP if the Congress’s crown prince carries out his threat of courting imprisonment. Even if the ruling party dubs such an act as theatrical, it will be aware that the sight of Rahul Gandhi behind bars cannot but be embarrassing for the BJP.

Such a dramatic turn of events may fuel speculation that the absence of a sound legal defence has compelled the Congress to turn the encounter into a political duel. But such tricks of the trade are an acceptable part of democratic politics. For the BJP, the immediate problem will be the future of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) Bill since the Congress is bound to use the charge of being a victim of political vendetta to stall parliament.

It is a provocative tactic which seemingly suits Rahul Gandhi’s post-sabbatical belligerence which is increasingly resembling his late uncle Sanjay Gandhi’s confrontational brand of politics. If the fate of the GST Bill is sealed for the time being, the BJP may wonder whether the penchant of the maverick in its ranks, Subramanian Swamy, to involve his adversaries in court cases may have backfired.

The BJP may argue that Swamy has been acting on his own in pursuing the National Herald case and that it is mean-minded of the Congress to mix up the GST Bill with its own legal difficulties in a Goebbelsian manoeuvre, as Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has said. But, since democracy is known to be messy, the case for the compartmentalization of its various aspects may not be foolproof.

As it is, the Congress has found a supporter in Mamata Banerjee even if she is playing her own game of keeping the Congress away from a possible alliance with the Left in West Bengal before next year’s assembly elections.

Besides, both the Congress and the Trinamool Congress have a point in saying that the interest which the central authorities have shown in the National Herald case is not visible in the Vyapam and the public distribution system scams in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, which are governed by the BJP.

Nothing demonstrated the extra interest that the authorities have taken in the National Herald case more clearly than the transfer of an Enforcement Directorate official who had dismissed the charges against the Congress leaders. The transfer was quickly followed by the appointment of another official and the revival of the case after Swamy had accused the previous incumbent of having been favourably disposed towards the Congress.

It is now up to the judiciary to address the nitty-gritty of the affair. But public interest will be focussed more on how the political skirmishes unfold than in the details of the case.

As Sonia Gandhi’s comment that she is Indira Gandhi’s daughter-in-law shows, she and her party have in mind the blunder committed by the Janata government in 1977 when it tried to implicate the doughty former prime minister in legal tangles.

Indira Gandhi’s spirited response – like a sherni or lioness, as was said at the time – paved the way for the Congress’s return to power in 1980.

History may not always repeat itself – or does so in the form of a farce, as Marx said – but even if the Congress under Sonia Gandhi is not what the Congress was under Indira Gandhi, the BJP also is not as much of a winner as it was last year, as its massive defeats in Delhi and Bihar have shown.

The party has also exhibited a vindictive streak as its cases against Teesta Setalvad for her role in aiding Gujarat’s riot victims show. Its acts against reputed NGOs like Greenpeace also underline a similar mentality. Its claim, therefore, that the Narendra Modi government is no more than a bystander in the face-off between the Congress’s big guns and Swamy, who is a member of the BJP’s national executive, will not be widely believed.

For all practical purposes, therefore, it is going to be a Tom and Jerry show with neither emerging with flying colours. Each side will try to hit the other where it hurts the most – the Congress by creating a ruckus in parliament even if it earns the reputation of being petty-minded, and the BJP by arguing that none in the Congress’s first family – Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Robert Vadra – is above the law.

The endless slugfest, however, between the two “national” parties (although neither has a presence in all parts of the country) carries the threat of not only derailing the reforms – Swamy has suggested that the GST can be dumped for the sake of fighting corruption – but also of fostering the impression that the parliamentary system is becoming unworkable.

It is unfortunate that at a time when Modi adopted a conciliatory tone in parliament, a member of his party acted in a manner which introduced fresh complications in the relations between the BJP and the Congress. It is almost as if the right hand does not know what the left is doing.

(12.12.2015 – Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at

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