Observing that the conduct of Congress office-bearers named in the National Herald case “smacks of criminality”, the Delhi High Court dismissed Monday appeals filed by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, vice president Rahul Gandhi and five others against summons to face trial.
Hours after the bench of Justice Sunil Gaur turned down the pleas for exemption from personal appearance in the case in the trial court, where it is listed Tuesday, a stunned Congress said it will approach the Supreme Court Tuesday morning against the High Court order. The trial court is likely to issue a date for personal appearances of all accused.
The Gandhis and five others — Suman Dubey, Moti Lal Vohra, Oscar Fernandes, Sam Pitroda and Young India Ltd (YI) — had challenged the trial court summons on a complaint by BJP’s Subramanian Swamy against them for alleged cheating and misappropriation of funds in taking control of the now-defunct National Herald newspaper.
Dismissing their appeals, the High Court bench, in a 27-page judgment, noted that YI was a “special purpose vehicle” created by the Congress leaders and the “questionable conduct of the petitioners needs to be properly examined… to find out the truth”.
The bench questioned the need for shifting the interest-free loan of Rs 90.25 crore extended to Associated Journals Limited (AJL), publisher of National Herald, to Young India Limited (YI) for Rs 50 lakh. The court observed that the modus operandi depicted “criminal intent”.
“…where was the need of extending interest-free loans to a public limited company engaged in a commercial venture of publishing newspapers,” the judge said, adding that allegations raised by complainant Swamy would need to be examined in detail at the stage of framing of charges against the accused.
“Even writing off such a huge debt by the Congress party can legitimately attract allegations of cheating, fraud, etc. Petitioners had gone a step further in conspiring to get this huge debt assigned to a special purpose vehicle i.e. YI and thereafter, to hijack AJL via YI. Such grave allegations levelled against petitioners cannot be brushed aside lightly by relying upon judicial precedents cited, to conclude that the ingredients of the criminal offences alleged are lacking. To say the least, to do so would be preposterous.”
“Such a prima facie view is being taken in view of the fact that the assignment of the huge debt by Congress party to YI was for a paltry sum of 50 lacs. This is certainly questionable and justifiably attracts the allegations of cheating, misappropriation, criminal breach of trust, etc,” the bench said.
The bench also dismissed the argument of locus standi raised by the Congress leaders, observing that the case involved allegations of siphoning of party funds which were under the control of party office-bearers.
“It will not be fair to literally interpret Section 39 of CrPC or to assert that a private citizen is free to proceed against corrupt public servants but not against a political party when it is accused of serious offences of cheating, misappropriation, etc. In a unique case like the instant one, expanded meaning to the law has to be given.”
“In the considered opinion of this court, the plea of locus standi cannot be restricted to typical cases of cheating,misappropriation, etc, as here is a case where the act of office-bearers of a political party having criminal overtones is under scrutiny,” the bench said.
Speaking to The Indian Express outside the High Court, Swamy said he would be filing a caveat before the Supreme Court so that he would be heard if the Congress leaders were to challenge the order in the apex court.
Announcing it would move the Supreme Court, the Congress called Swamy’s complaint part of the “BJP’s petty vendetta politics”.
The development threatens to deteriorate already frosty ties between the government and the main opposition party in the middle of a crucial Parliament session. Short of majority in the Upper House where key bills are stuck, the government has reached out to the Congress with Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself inviting the Congress president to his residence for tea to break the parliamentary deadlock over GST. And the Congress had responded positively.
Congress leader Abhishek Singhvi said: “We were surprised at a judgment delivered in the afternoon, dismissing the petition in the so-called National Herald case. Surprised because the matter was not notified for judgment as is the usual practice in the cause list of the High Court but by telephonic intimation it was informed that around 11-11.30 am that judgment will be delivered in the afternoon.”
“We intend to challenge the order because we have very substantive legal grounds and we believe that a dismissal of our quashing petition is legally unsustainable,” Singhvi said. He hoped the protection given by the High Court earlier to the Gandhis will continue till a proper analysis of the order is done and a proper legal challenge mounted.
Congress communication department head Randeep Surjewala said the Congress does not view the judgment as a setback.
“In the long course of its political journey, Congress has faced many such cases sponsored by its political opponents… No attempts to malign the leadership of Congress party through doctored cases will deter us to fight and expose the anti-people policies of the present government. In fact, our resolve to raise people’s issues gets strengthened with every such attack by incredulous agents of the BJP government,” Surjewala said.