Rahul Gandhi has found his voice. But has he actually found his calling?
The Congress vice president would be right to worry about the fallout over the Rs 5,000 crore National Herald case which goes right to the heart of 10, Janpath and 12, Tughlaq Lane.
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At 45, Rajiv Gandhi had been Prime Minister for five years, tasted victory and defeat and, at 46, was assassinated.
Rahul Gandhi is 45. He has been a member of Parliament for eleven years. (Rajiv served as MP for ten years: 1981-91.) Since returning from his secretive 56-day sabbatical in April 2015, Rahul has enjoyed a political renaissance of sorts. He speaks more, in the Parliament and outside. Shyness has given way to belligerence.
He has vowed to disrupt the monsoon session of Parliament. He mocked the "56-inch prime minister", promising to reduce him to "5.6 inches". He declared that he will not allow "one-inch of land to be grabbed by Modiji". He accused external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj of committing a "criminal act". He slammed agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh for being insensitive to farmers. He joined the protest in Pune against the new FTII chairman Gajendra Chauhan.
So is Rahul's makeover for real? Will he be able to refashion the 44-MP Congress into a fighting force? The key lies in Rahul's speeches since his return to public life over three months ago. The centerpiece of his approach has been the Land Acquisition Bill. He is right that some of the nine amendments introduced by the NDA government on a Bill largely authored by the UPA-2 regime in 2013 need to go. Others need to be modified.
But the Land Bill in its original UPA garb was bad for farmers, bad for industry, bad for government and bad for growth. Its social impact assessment clause and 70/80 per cent urban/rural consent clauses would have led to decades-long litigation and delays. No wonder virtually not an acre of farm land has been acquired for industrial or commercial projects in the last few years. Development in rural India has stalled. Jobs are scarce. Incomes have fallen.
The NDA government has belatedly realised that the Land Bill, now being considered by a joint parliamentary panel - which is scheduled to submit its report in the first week of August - will make no headway in the monsoon session. The Congress has promised as much though other parties have been more circumspect. The Bill will clearly undergo a major overhaul.
Rahul's real challenge, however, lies beyond Parliament. It is organisational. After the 1969 Congress split an insecure Indira Gandhi eroded and then demolished the power of regional Congress leaders established by Jawaharlal Nehru: K Kamraj in Tamil Nadu, Hemvati Bahuguna in Uttar Pradesh, S Nijalingappa in Karnataka.
The Congress became increasingly centralised. Rajiv Gandhi continued his mother's policy: powerful state leaders were seen as a threat to dynastic rule. Sonia Gandhi sharpened the high command culture, cutting down to size or even expelling newer regional leaders like Jaganmohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh.
To reverse this counter-productive strategy, Rahul has created his own group of Young Turks with regional backgrounds: Sachin Pilot (Rajasthan), Jyotiraditya Scindia (Madhya Pradesh), Jitin Prasada (Uttar Pradesh) and Deepender Hooda (Haryana).
The problem of course lies in their surnames: each is a dynast. Moreover, apart from Pilot, none seems enthused with a regional role. The high command culture and the rich pickings available in Delhi are seductive.
It is likely that at some stage in the near future Rahul will replace his mother Sonia as Congress president. Priyanka will then step into a more proactive role. Rahul's longtime Man Friday, Wharton alumnus Kanishka Singh, now runs Priyanka's office. Her court challenge to block disclosure of her family's land deals in Himachal Pradesh indicates that she is ready for a more combative public role. The cultivated reticence has run its course.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's recent speech in Jammu on choosing sons-in-law carefully was obviously aimed at Robert Vadra. But Rahul and Sonia face a more immediate danger than investigations into Vadra's land deals. Most of the media has studiously avoided reporting, much less analysing, that danger. On September 2, the Delhi High Court will resume hearing arguments in the two-year-old National Herald case. If the verdict goes against the Gandhis, it will pose serious political and legal problems.
What are the precise facts available in the public domain? The petition filed in the trial court claims that the Congress gave a Rs 90-crore loan in 2011 to extinguish the debt of Associated Journals Pvt Ltd (AJL), publisher of the defunct National Herald newspaper which Jawaharlal Nehru had founded with other Congress leaders in 1938 and which closed down in 2008 during the tenure of the UPA-1 government.
Debt extinguished, AJL instead of restarting the newspaper (for which the Congress loan had specifically been given), retrenched its remaining editorial and other staff. In 2011, AJL was acquired for a consideration of Rs 50 lakh by Young Indian (YI), a not-for-profit (Section 25) company in which Sonia and Rahul have 76 per cent shareholding. A group of Gandhi associates, including Congress treasurer Motilal Vora, hold the balance 24 per cent. The key issue is that AJL's debt of Rs 90 crore was extinguished from its books by a loan from funds the Congress receives as donations from the public. These funds are meant for public purposes as per the party's constitution.
AJL was attractive to YI not because it possessed a defunct newspaper, National Herald, and a few staff. It was attractive because it possessed valuable property. This included a building, Herald House, on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg worth an estimated Rs 2,000 crore.
Other properties owned by AJL around the country have an estimated value of between Rs 1,500 and Rs 3,000 crore. With 76 per cent shareholding, these properties - and the rent they generate - now belong to YI, a company controlled by Sonia and Rahul with their 76 per cent shareholding. Pertinently, Herald House, situated on government land, was given to AJL at a concessional price decades ago for the specific purpose of running a newspaper, not for any other commercial use.
What should be done now - ethically and legally? The answer is straightforward: YI should either restart the National Herald - which is why YI acquired AJL for Rs 50 lakh in the first place. Or AJL, now a shell company owned by YI, should return the Rs 90-crore loan it took from the Congress (which generously wrote off the loan as unrecoverable) while YI surrenders the property, estimated at Rs 5,000 crore, to AJL - property it came to own by acquiring AJL for just Rs 50 lakh. That would restore the status quo ante.
The Delhi High Court will decide whether to stay the trial court's summons issued to Rahul, Sonia and others associated with newly property-rich YI - or let their trial proceed. The fact that a trial court judge has issued summons to "the accused" indicates a prima facie case has been established against them.
But as a not-for-profit (Section 25) company, the Gandhis' counsel Kapil Sibal argues, no one makes a profit from the humongous rent YI is earning every month from its Herald House property. He does not of course mention that expenses incurred by YI's shareholders can be debited against the company's rental income: The "non-profit" status enjoyed by a Section 25 company does not mean expenses can't be set off in its books of accounts. Indeed, YI's audited current balance sheet would make interesting reading.
For Rahul, propriety is an important weapon to beat the Modi government with. The Vyapam scam and allegations of impropriety against Vasundhara Raje and Sushma Swaraj will continue to be used to corner the government as the monsoon session of Parliament unfolds.
While keeping a watchful eye on the ongoing investigations into the 2G, Coalgate, Aircel-Maxis and other scams that marked the UPA decade in office, Rahul would be right to also worry about the fallout over the Rs 5,000-crore National Herald case which goes right to the heart of 10 Janpath and 12, Tughlaq Lane.
Rahul 2.0 must realise that India has moved beyond rhetoric. The politics of opposition, within Parliament and outside, must be constructive not disruptive. Otherwise he will rapidly discover that power, as he once said, can indeed be poison.