Congress President Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi on Monday suffered a big jolt when the Delhi high court rejected their pleas for quashing the summons against them in the National Herald case and made scathing observations on their ‘questionable conduct’ regarding how they took control of the publication.
Justice Sunil Gaur also turned down their plea for exemption from personal appearance in the case in the trial court, where it is listed for Tuesday.
Along with the Gandhis, five other accused -- Suman Dubey, Moti Lal Vohra, Oscar Fernandes, Sam Pitroda and Young India Ltd -- had challenged the summons issued to them by a trial court on a complaint by Bharatiya Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy against them for alleged cheating and misappropriation of funds in taking control of the now-defunct daily.
"After having considered the entire case in its proper perspective, this court finds no hesitation to put it on record that the modus operandi adopted by petitioners in taking control of Associated Journals Ltd via special purpose vehicle i.e. Young India Ltd, particularly, when the main persons in the Congress party, AJL and YIL are the same, evidences a criminal intent," the judge said in his 27-page order.
"Whether it is cheating, criminal misappropriation or criminal breach of trust is not required to be spelt out at this nascent stage," the judge said.
"In any case, by no stretch of imagination, it can be said that 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," it said.
The judge was also of the view that 'the gravity of the allegations levelled against petitioners (Sonia, Rahul and others) has a fraudulent flavour involving a national political party and so, serious imputations smacking of criminality levelled against petitioners need to be properly looked into'.
The high court said that such a prima facie view was 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 Rs 50 lakh.
"This is certainly questionable and justifiably attracts the allegations of cheating, misappropriation, criminal breach of trust, etc. Such a view is being taken as it needs to be explained before the trial court as to how the net worth of AJL can be negative when it has assets worth crores of rupees," it said.
The court also questioned why the interest free loan was assigned and why it was not written off.
"In any case, writing off such a huge debt by a legendry political party is indeed questionable," it said.
"Instead of adopting such a questionable course, what was done by the Congress party is more questionable. It also needs to be answered as to why the genuine shareholders were marginalised in the Extraordinary General Meeting, which was attended by just seven shareholders. Such a questionable conduct of petitioners certainly invites allegations of committing the offences for which petitioners have been summoned," the high court said.
The high court said that it has to be examined at pre-charge stage whether the conduct of the party amounted to criminal misappropriation of its funds.
"It also needs to be examined at pre-charge stage as to whether lacs of citizens, who had donated to the Congress party, felt cheated by assignment of such a huge debt to YI who was managed by none others than the petitioners, who were office bearers of the Congress party as well as the directors of YI," the court said.
"Not only this, the main persons, who were instrumental in allegedly siphoning off political funds were the recipients of the assignment of the huge debt by the Congress party and they were the same persons, who had clandestinely acquired the control of AJL. All this smacks of criminality," the HC said.
The trial court had on June 26 last year summoned all the above accused to appear before it on August 7, 2014 on Swamy's complaint. The Congress leaders had, thereafter, on July 30, 2014, moved the high court which had stayed the summons on August 6 last year.
Thereafter, on December 15, 2014, the court had stayed the summons till final disposal of the petitions.
Meanwhile, the BJP welcomed the order, saying the Congress president and vice president cannot 'hide' from the law which was 'taking its own course'.
"This is what happens when you buy such a huge property for a pittance. Law is taking its own course. They (Gandhis) had also gone to the court. Law is equal to the common man and Sonia Gandhi. They cannot hide from it," BJP spokesperson Shahnawaz Hussain told reporters.
The Congress, however, said that it does not view this as a setback to the Gandhis but as culmination of one set of a judicial process.
"We have full faith in the Indian judicial system. At the end, truth shall prevail," Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said.