In an embarrassment to the Congress, the Delhi High Court on Monday dismissed the appeals of party president Sonia Gandhi, vice-president Rahul Gandhi and others seeking quashing of the summons issued to them by a trial court in the National Herald case.
The Congress is likely to challenge the verdict in the Supreme Court on Tuesday.
The summons, in response to which the Congress leaders have to appear before a Metropolitan Magistrate on Tuesday, were issued on June 26 last on a complaint by BJP leader Subramanian Swamy of alleged cheating and breach of trust in the acquisition of the now-defunct National Herald by Young Indian Limited (YIL). The Congress leaders own a stake as directors in YIL, registered as a charitable company.
Charge of corruption
The complaint alleged corruption in the assigning of loan worth Rs. 90.25 crore owed to the Congress by Associated Journals Limited (AJL), publisher of the National Herald, to YIL for Rs. 50 lakh. Justice Sunil Gaur made some scathing remarks on the “questionable conduct” in the acquisition of the publication and said the criminal proceedings could not be thwarted at the initial stage.
“After having considered the entire case in its proper perspective, this court finds no hesitation in putting it on record that the modus operandi adopted by petitioners in taking control of AJL via the special purpose vehicle (YIL), particularly when the main persons in Congress, AJL and YI are the same, evidences a criminal intent,” the court said in its 27-page judgment.
Besides Ms. Sonia Gandhi and Mr. Rahul Gandhi, the five others — Motilal Vohra, Oscar Fernandez, Suman Dubey, Sam Pitroda and Young Indian Limited — challenged the summons.
The court said the gravity of the allegations had a “fraudulent flavour” involving a national political party. Therefore, serious imputations smacking of criminality levelled against the petitioners needed to be properly looked into, it said.
Court says no mala fide can be attributed to Swamy
Congress leaders are likely to make an urgent mention in the Supreme Court before a Bench led by Chief Justice of India T.S. Thakur, seeking a stay on the order, as soon as the court convenes on Tuesday.
The Bench of Justice Sunil Gaur said the Congress’s transactions with AJL via YI were not mere commercial transactions, as they legitimately attracted the allegations of cheating, fraud, breach of trust and misappropriation. “Legal jugglery of words cannot persuade this court to opine at this initial stage that the allegations do not make out a prima facie case to summon petitioners.”
On the Congress leaders’ challenge to the locus standi of BJP leader Subramanian Swamy to make the complaint, the court said the plea of locus could not be restricted to typical cases of cheating and misappropriation as “here is a case where the act of office-bearers of a political party having criminal overtones is under scrutiny.”
“Whether it is cheating, criminal misappropriation or criminal breach of trust is not required to be spelt out at this nascent stage... By no stretch of imagination can it be said no case for summoning petitioners as accused in the complaint in question is made out. Questionable conduct of petitioners needs to be properly examined at the charge stage to find out the truth and so, these criminal proceedings cannot be thwarted at this initial stage,” said the court.
The judge also ruled that no mala fides could be alleged against Dr. Swamy, nor could it be said that the summoning of petitioners was an abuse of the process of the court.
When the High Court pronounced the verdict, the Congress was leading the Opposition charge in Parliament, confronting the BJP over Minister of State V.K. Singh’s “dog” remarks. On hearing about the judgment, the party said it would challenge the verdict in the Supreme Court. At a hurriedly convened press interaction, senior leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi said the verdict took them by “surprise” as it lacked substantive legal grounds.
Criticising the BJP for playing “vendetta politics,” Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala termed the complaint “mischievous and false.”