By June this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his advisers had become convinced that in the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED), they had found perfect instruments not only to destroy the opposition but also to convert India into an authoritarian, one-party pseudo-Hindu state of their dreams.
Only one threat remained to be removed: this was the possibility, still remote in March but not to be discounted, of the opposition parties recognising the common danger that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) posed to all of them – the destruction of India’s multi-ethnic federalism – and presenting a single United Front against the BJP in 2024.
If they did so the BJP knew that its chances of returning to power in 2024 would virtually vanish. The Congress had remained the single dominant party in Indian democracy only as long as its share of the vote had exceeded 40%: in 1967, it gained 40.78 % of the vote and managed to capture 282 seats, just 10 more than the halfway number of 272. In 1989, it got 39.53% of the vote, but secured only 197 seats and was pushed out by the Janata Dal. The mammoth impact of a measly 1.25% fall in vote share was therefore lost on no one.
Modi’s think tank could not but know that its chances of crossing the 40% mark were slim. The BJP too is close to the limit of the rise in its vote. Before the Modi wave began, the most it had received was a little short of 25%. Even that was because of Vajpayee’s superb handling of the Kargil War. This had fallen to a little over 18% in 2009.
Modi and his brand of Hindutva got their chance only because of the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA’s) abject failure to understand the causes of the economic crash of 2009 and to allow the Reserve Bank of India to impose very high interest rates upon the economy that killed both economic growth and, more importantly, the growth of employment, in 2011. The resulting, profound, disappointment of the youth created the credibility for Modi’s grandiose economic promises that shot its vote share up from 18% in 2009 to more than 30% in 2014.
Incessant campaigning, a near total capture of the media to spread Modi’s version of events, and his brilliant oratory, combined with a befuddled and disunited opposition that did not have the faintest vision of an alternative future to offer to India, convinced the youth of the country to give the BJP another chance, so in 2019 its vote shot up further 6% to almost 37%.
But Modi has not been able to live up to even one of the promises he had made to the youth in 2014. After eight years of declining growth from 2011-12 t0 2019-20, the Labour Force Participation Ratio had fallen from its peak of 63% in 2008-09 to 40.1% in 2019-20, because 116 million persons had lost hope of ever finding a job completely and given up looking for work altogether.
This was followed by COVID, rapidly growing unemployment, inflation and highly regressive taxation. So few in Modi’s think tank any longer harboured the illusion that the next election would bring another jump of 4% to 5% of the vote to the BJP. Another way would therefore have to be found to win the 2024 elections.
The route they have chosen is to discredit, malign, and humiliate opposition leaders in the full glare of the media in order to break their hold on the people’s imagination, and to break up powerful opposition parties in the states by securing defections from them that will render them impotent even if they manage to forge a combined front in 2024.
Being the master of misdirection that he is, Modi’s strategy too has a public and a private face: the former is a moral face, exemplified by the ED’s attacks on, and imprisonment of, opposition leaders like Anil Deshmukh, Nawab Malik and Sanjay Raut in Maharashtra; its attacks on Partha Chatterjee and Mamta Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee in Bengal; and above all on Rahul and Sonia Gandhi in Delhi; all accompanied by claims of huge sums these persons had ‘stolen’ from the public.
These have caught the headlines, but it is the BJP’s second, sinister face, that spells immense danger not only to peoples’ rights but to the very unity of India that its founding fathers took 65 years to shape and another 75 to forge. This is its ruthless drive to unearth some major or minor financial irregularity in the affairs of every MP or MLA and use it to blackmail him or her into leaving his or her party and joining the BJP. That is the real purpose of the 5,310 investigations, the 2974 searches, resulting in the attachment of Rs, 95,432.08 crore worth of property considered “proceeds of crime“, and the 839 prosecutions that the ED launched between 2014 and May 7, 2022.
Compare these figures to the data for the period from 2004 to 2014, when the ED filed 112 cases, carried out 112 searches and made up prosecution dockets in 104 cases, and the difference between an honest attempt to implement an admittedly bad economic law, and an unprincipled attempt to use the same law as a political weapon to destroy the opposition and create a one-party state via the back door, become starkly clear.
Victimising the Gandhis to destroy Congress
The ED’s questioning of the two Gandhis reveals the depths to which the Modi government is willing to sink in its attempt to destroy not just a pre-eminent political family, but the very name, of the one man who, single-handedly, shamed the entire British Raj into leaving India without firing a shot – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
In the past two months, the ED has questioned Rahul Gandhi five times for close to 50 hours, and Sonia Gandhi three times for a total of 12 hours. The media has been allowed to film hours of video of them going to, and emerging from, the ED office like criminals.
Tens of thousands of words have appeared in print in 17 languages informing the public that they are being interrogated over what every Indian has now come to know as the ‘National Herald Money Laundering Case‘.
Can any ordinary Indian be blamed for believing that if the ED is willing to spend so much time and effort upon them, they must have done something very wrong?
The true history of the National Herald case
The truth is that the entire National Herald case was and remains a pure concoction – street theatre designed to disgrace not just the persons, but the names of those to whom 1.4 billion Indians owed their freedom and self-respect. An even more blatant insult to the intelligence of the public is that Modi promoted this nautanki in the full knowledge that not only was there no case against them but that according to his own administration no case could ever be made either.
This was because the ED had already spent an entire year in 2014-15 examining the revival of the National Herald, and had fully exonerated not only Sonia and Rahul Gandhi but also every one of their four supposed conspirators.
On August 18, 2015, “for want of substantive evidence”, Modi had been so incensed that the ministry of finance not only dismissed the ED’s executive director Rajan Katoch but removed him from government service altogether the very next day!
Modi’s vengefulness could not be so easily assuaged. In 2007, Sonia Gandhi had described him as “Maut ka Saudagar” – a trader in death – and this had to be avenged. So, the Delhi police filed another case, this time a criminal case before a magistrate’s court in Delhi. Modi knew that the two would get bail in minutes, but his purpose was not to incarcerate but to disgrace Sonia Gandhi and her son.
On December 19, 2015, when Congress president Sonia Gandhi, vice president Rahul Gandhi, treasurer Motilal Vora, senior leader Oscar Fernandes, and two friends of the Gandhi family, Suman Dubey and Sam Pitroda, appeared before a judge of the Delhi District Court, kicking off a frenzy in the print and audio-visual media, for all of India to see, his immediate purpose was served.
So great was the feeding frenzy in the media, that no reporter bothered to ask why a criminal case was being lodged now, when the civil case had been dismissed only three months earlier after a full year of investigation. Had the reporters done so they would have learned, first, that the first information report (FIR) that had kicked off the case had been lodged on the basis of a complaint filed in 2011 by the arch muckraker Subramaniam Swamy of St. Kitts fame, and second that on December 17, two days before the Gandhis appeared in court like common criminals, home minister Rajnath Singh had allotted Subramaniam Swamy a fully-appointed government bungalow to live in despite the fact that he held no official post in the party or government.
A close examination of the so-called ‘case’ even then would have shown that, as president of the Congress, Sonia Gandhi had every right to revive the National Herald, for the paper had been founded by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in 1937 with the express purpose of “reflecting the policy and principles of the Indian National Congress”. Along with Navjeevan in Hindi and Qaumi Awaaz in Urdu, it had got off to a flying start in 1937, but never fully recovered from the blow it received when the British banned it in 1942 for supporting the Quit India Movement. By the time the ban was lifted in 1945, the British were on their way out and Pandit Nehru and other senior leaders, who used to write for it regularly before 1942, were preoccupied with the transition.
The death blow to the paper came in the mid-seventies when the Times of India and other major newspaper groups began to under-price their newspapers and make good the loss by increasing their revenues from advertising. Within a decade this had forced scores of smaller, independent newspapers all over the country to close down for lack of ad revenues.
From the 1970s, the National Herald and its sister papers became entirely dependent on annual, zero interest loans, by the Congress party. In 2008, when the combined losses of the three papers had mounted to Rs 50 crore, and Provident fund arrears, voluntary retirement payments, and other closure charges to another Rs 40.25 crore, Sonia Gandhi decided to close the papers down.
However, by then almost every other political party in the country had started its own newspaper or TV channel. So, in 2012, Sonia Gandhi changed her mind and decided to revive them. Given the brand name recognition of the three newspapers, this made sense. But, technically, the company was owned by Associated Journals Limited (AJL), an unlisted company set up under a 1913 Act, with donations, reputedly, from 5,000 freedom fighters, with GD Birla, several Tata trusts and a number of prominent well-wishers among its shareholders. In 2012, AJL still had 1,057 shareholders, but could not raise a paisa to finance a fresh start, because it was drowning in the ocean of debt on its balance sheet.
The Congress leadership, therefore, took a route to revival that scores of India’s largest firms and hundreds of others all over the world that had been bankrupted by the economic crash of 2009 were taking even then. This was to convert a part, or all, of their debt into equity shares and sell these at a discount to those willing to gamble on the firm’s recovery. Freed of the crushing burden of mounting interest payments on unredeemed debt, the company would regain the capacity to borrow money and launch a new business plan.
To begin the revival the Congress formed a new company called Young Indian, which then bought all the shares of AJL along with its debt at a discount and re-floated the National Herald as a weekly. To make it transparently clear to the world that future profits, if any, would go to the organisation and not the shareholders, they made Young Indian a not-for-profit company under Section 25 (a) of the Companies Act. National Herald came out as a weekly and did not make a profit. So the Gandhis and their ‘co-accused’ never made a paisa from it.
That was what Rajan Katoch had concluded in 2015, but counting on the media’s short memory span, the Modi government had reopened the case within weeks of his expulsion, under what it hoped would be a more pliant Enforcement Directorate. That second inquiry is what the Modi government decided to revive in June, after a hiatus of six years, in the full glare of media publicity.
The Congress has been exceedingly slow to recognise the limitlessness of Modi’s ambitions, and the limits to its own capacity to challenge them. For the whole of Modi’s five-year term, every attempt by leaders of the opposition to make the Congress realise the urgent need for unity was rejected by its leaders, who were convinced that the BJP’s victory was an aberration that the electorate would correct in 2019.
Since the non-Congress opposition was made up entirely of ethno-centered parties that enjoyed support only in their home states, Congress was confident that 2019 would see the return of another avatar of the UPA to power.
It was only its crushing 2019 defeat, and the wholesale onslaught upon state governments across the country using the PMLA and the ED that followed that finally alerted the opposition that it must unite or it will perish.
Prem Shankar Jha is a veteran journalist.