The Scam That Heralded Downfall Of The Gandhis

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When it first went to print in 1938, the newspaper National Herald carried on its masthead the words – Freedom is in peril, defend it with all your might. Today, the Indian National Congress is living its own interpretation of those words, with the freedom at stake not that of our nation, but that of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. The current and former Congress presidents have been accused of creating a shell company to gain assets that originally belonged to a firm founded by India’s first prime minister and Rahul’s great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru.

The firm’s most popular asset is the National Herald newspaper, but its most profitable asset is real estate worth Rs 2,000 crore in prime locations of New Delhi, Lucknow, Bhopal, Mumbai, Indore, Patna and Panchkula among other places.

The firm, Associated Journals Limited, was the brainchild of Nehru but was never intended to be owned by any individual, much less a political party or dynasty. A questionable loan from the Congress to a cash-strapped AJL in 2011 changed that. The loan, the creation of a new entity called Young Indian Limited to acquire the said loan, the part payment Young Indian made to Congress, and the transfer of shares allegedly landed the Gandhi family in possession of a real estate gold mine.

As the case drops a giant question mark on the credibility of a family which directly or indirectly wielded enormous political power for 70 years of Independent India, News18 takes a deep dive into the saga, from the era of Jawaharlal Nehru to that of his great-grandson.

ORIGIN STORY

On November 20, 1937, the Associated Journals Limited came into being at Herald House in Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, Delhi’s Fleet Street. The brainchild of Nehru, the unlisted public company had the support of around 5,000 freedom fighters who eventually became the firm’s shareholders. AJL’s Rs 5 lakh capital was divided into 2,000 preferential shares worth Rs 100 each and 30,000 equity shares worth Rs 10 each. The company’s Memorandum of Association, a legal document that spells out the charter of the company, was signed by Nehru, freedom fighter Purushottam Das Tandon, socialist Acharya Narendra Dev, lawyer-politician Kailash Nath Katju, activist and socialist Rafi Ahmed Kidwai and the first CM of Uttar Pradesh GB Pant.

The AJL had three publications to its name – the National Herald in English, Qaumi Awaz in Urdu and Navjivan in Hindi. The National Herald came into being in Lucknow on September 9, 1938. Till 1947, the newspaper, under the editorship of K Rama Rao, played an important role in the freedom struggle with op-eds by Nehru being a regular feature. It was even banned by the British in 1942 following the launch of the Quit India Movement and was revived in 1945 post which M Chalapathi Rau became the editor and steered the ship for the next 30 years.

OVER THE YEARS

Post-Independence, the National Herald peaked in popularity in the 1960s and the 1970s, and despite being a mouthpiece for the Congress, retained journalistic credibility mainly on account of its no-nonsense editor Rau. Despite the paper being so closely associated with the Congress and despite his own proximity to Nehru, Rau’s editorials were often critical of the then PM’s policies. At the paper’s silver jubilee function, Nehru himself addressed the popular notion that National Herald was his paper. “People think it is my paper. It really is Chalapathi Rau’s paper. He has made it what it is.”

Writing in Firstpost in December 2015, senior journalist Ratan Mani Lal gave an account of the publication’s standing in the news business in the 1970s. “For many young people like me in the 70s, wishing to make a career in English journalism, the choice was obvious and limited, at least in North India. The first was the National Herald and the other was The Pioneer. The National Herald was the largest circulated daily in Uttar Pradesh in those decades. Later, even though its publication was interrupted by frequent lock-outs, lay-offs and strikes, its readership and popularity remained as high.”

The paper continued to enjoy a solid run and then came 1977. Indira Gandhi paid for two years of Emergency with an electoral defeat at the hands of the Janata Party. “Our editors told us that we could be in for trouble,” said Lal in his article. By then, the newspaper had already been accused of corruption and favouritism.

During the Emergency, the newspaper touched its lowest moment editorially when it removed the words ‘Freedom is in peril, defend it with all your might’ from its masthead.

But, according to Ratan Mani Lal, the real trouble came in 1979 with the first lock-out. Rau had quit as editor the previous year and the stint of Khushwant Singh didn’t last long. “Those were the days when non-professional players started making their presence felt in the office. We used to see politicians, small-time businessmen and middlemen come to the marketing department even though they did not have the courage to enter the newsroom.”

According to an India Today report from 1978, the newspaper’s Delhi circulation didn’t touch 15,000 before the Emergency. “The Lucknow edition did better (30,000) but the onset of the Emergency saw the paper boom not only in advertising revenue but also in circulation,” the report said.

The seeds of National Herald’s decline as a newspaper were sown in the period between 1979 and 1983 when senior journalists lined up for the exit door and parallel exodus was seen in the marketing and circulation departments. The financial situation became so dire that old hands still with the publication used their goodwill in the market and industry to borrow newsprint and printing presses to keep going.

Expenditure and rent dues soon piled up and the newspaper had to suspend publication several times. The closure of the newspaper’s Delhi edition in 1977 was even discussed in Parliament. During a debate in the Rajya Sabha, CPI’s Bhupesh Gupta said: “Nehru tradition has gone a long time ago as far as the paper is concerned. But something that remains should be preserved. In any case, it is a matter of public interest and a matter of great importance.”

In response, then Information & Broadcasting Minister LK Advani said the government would be “happy (if) the management continues the paper on its own with the same policy and the same approach… there should not be any discrimination either in favour of or against any paper on the ground of political policy.”

The National Herald sputtered on until 2008 when AJL finally ceased publication. The last edition of the newspaper in Delhi came out on April 1, 2008. The Lucknow edition had already been shuttered 10 years before that.

In 2008, editor-in-chief TV Venkitachalam had been at the helm for 20 years. A solemn notice in the last edition announced “temporary suspension” of the newspaper. “The temporary closure of National Herald and Quami Awaz was announced by the management of the Associated Journals Ltd, which publishes the paper,” Venkitachalam announced on the eve of the closure.

According to a March 31, 2008 report in the IANS, the National Herald and Quami Awaz Employees Union and Congress leaders had worked out the modalities towards a final settlement for the 265 employees, including around 40 journalists of the English and the Urdu editions published from New Delhi. “The employees will get their cheques for Voluntary Retirement Scheme on April 2, as April 1 is a bank holiday,” the report had said.

WHY THE PAPER CLOSED IN 2008

The reasons given for the paper’s closure were losses due to overstaffing, mainly of the press and non-journalists, and lack of advertisements revenue. There were murmurs, however, of the publication having failed to enter the modern era of printing.

In another article on April 1, 2008, the IANS reported on the fact that the editorial department of the English edition did not have a computer. “The press section had five-six computers and there was one computer in the teleprinter room, which was used by the editorial and advertisement staff to check mails,” the report said.

Some senior editors reportedly had to bring personal laptops to work. According to the IANS report, the management had wanted to computerise Quami Awaz in 2004, but the proposal was shot down by the union as around 20 calligraphers would have been rendered jobless.

The newspaper’s last editorial was titled ‘Herald hopes for a better tomorrow’ and stated: “With its glorious tradition, will National Herald be made to remain only a part of history, or, will it continue to function to herald change and progress in time with the positive basic values for which India has always stood?”

At the time of National Herald’s closure in 2008, editor-in-chief Venkitachalam was anxious that the paper should not end up in oblivion like Mahatma Gandhi’s Harijan. “The paper is part of Nehru’s legacy and has continued to uphold the traditions of secularism and non-alignment and I hope the Congress party will not allow it to close down finally,” he said.

And the Congress party delivered in 2016.

THE REVIVAL

On August 31, 2016, two years after it lost power at the Centre, the Congress announced the revival of the National Herald and Navjivan with Neelabh Mishra, earlier the editor of Outlook Hindi as the editor-in-chief.

“The Associated Journals Limited, a company founded in 1937 by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, has taken steps to resume publication of its English and Hindi newspapers, National Herald and Navjivan,” read a statement released by Congress treasurer Motilal Vora. The statement said Mishra would build and lead the team for both National Herald and Navjivan and their digital and related assets.

The idea to revive the publication was primarily Rahul Gandhi’s who reportedly even instructed that a copy be kept in all rooms of the Congress offices and that all Congress members must subscribe to it. The latter never happened.

With the publications, the Congress brought back the newspaper’s tagline — “Freedom is in peril, defend it with all your might“.

Ironically, the announcement of the revival came a few days after a Delhi court issued notices to Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her son and then party vice-president Rahul Gandhi in a case based on a plea filed by BJP leader Subramanian Swamy. In what came to be called the National Herald corruption case, Swamy had sought the Congress party’s balance sheet from 2010-2011. The BJP MP alleged that it was during this period that the Gandhis and other senior members of the Congress came into control of vast properties and assets that belonged to AJL via a company called Young Indian which is said to have no commercial operations.

WHAT TRANSPIRED IN 2010-2011?

The Associated Journals Limited was a product of Nehru’s ideation but was never intended to be owned by him (or his descendants). The 5,000 freedom fighters who supported its creation were its shareholders. By September 2010, AJL had 1,057 shareholders. It also had real estate assets worth Rs 2,000 crore then in New Delhi, Lucknow, Bhopal, Mumbai, Indore, Patna and Panchkula. The Herald House in Delhi is itself a six-storey building with around 10,000 sq metre office space. Despite its riches, AJL’s product, the National Herald, shut down in 2008 due to severe cash crunch.

Having been closely associated with the newspaper since before Independence, the Congress proposed to revive it but the way it went about is now the subject of an ED investigation. At the heart of the investigation is an interest-free loan of Rs 90 crore the Congress extended from its funds to AJL from time to time since 2001.

national herald

According to an Indian Express report from 2015, AJL was categorised as a Section 25 company under the Companies Act of 1956. A Section 25 company is registered as a non-profit organisation to promote charity, science, education, culture and other social causes, and its owners cannot receive profits or dividends like a regular company. On November 23, 2010, another Section 25 company was floated called the Young Indian. Like AJL in 1937, Young Indian was incorporated with a paid up capital of Rs 5 lakh and was registered with the same 5A, Herald House, Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg address.

On December 13, 2010, Rahul Gandhi was appointed as the director of Young Indian and little over a month later, Sonia Gandhi joined the Board of Directors on January 22, 2011. As on March 31, 2021, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi each held 38% stake (1,900 shares) in Young Indian, while the late Motilal Vora and the late Oscar Fernandes each held 12% stake or 600 shares each.

Vora, who held the positions of MP Chief Minister, Union Civil Aviation Minister, Union Health Minister and Uttar Pradesh Governor between 1985 and 1996, passed away on December 21, 2020. Former Union minister Fernandes passed away on September 13, 2021. As on March 30, 2022, there was no request for transmission of their shares.

national herald

Around a week after Rahul Gandhi’s appointment as Young Indian director, the Congress assigned the AJL debt to Young Indian, which meant that AJL now owed the Rs 90 crore to Young Indian. Here comes the bone of contention — the Young Indian paid only Rs 50 lakh to the Congress for transferring the Rs 90 crore debt onto itself.

On December 21, 2010, AJL’s Board approved the allocation of the accumulated loans to Young Indian. But unable to pay the amount, the AJL instead transferred a mammoth chunk of its equity to the Young Indian, which means the Sonia and Rahul-controlled private company came to acquire the publicly limited AJL. And along with AJL, they came to control valuable real estate properties across seven cities.

The essence of Subramanian Swamy’s complaint is that for a sum of Rs 50 lakh on a Rs 90 lakh loan the Congress wrote off, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi came into possession of AJL’s real estate worth Rs 2,000 crore via Young Indian.

Separately, many of AJL’s prominent shareholders have alleged that they received no notice of any shareholders’ meeting and that the shares originally held by their parents and grandparents were transferred to Young Indian without their approval. In December 2015, former law minister Shanti Bhushan said his father Vishwamitra Bhushan owned five preferential shares worth Rs 500 in AJL, three more than Nehru. He said he was neither informed nor was his consent sought in 2010 when the shares were transferred to Young Indian.

Former Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju’s grandfather Kailash Nath Katju also held 131 shares in AJL. An Indian Express report from July 2016 quoted him as saying: “This is the first time I am hearing about such a company in which my grandfather had shares. I have no idea what kind of deal was struck. Had a letter or a notice for approval been sent to any of my siblings or at our Allahabad address, I would have been informed.”

The report added that the “list of over 1,000 shareholders of AJL, as on September 30, 2008, included Congress party office-bearers, and a number of people employed in different professions, mostly from Uttar Pradesh… Among the shareholders were an assistant manager, a chief chemist, doctors, medical officers, teachers, lawyers, merchants, commission agents, bankers, brokers, talukdars and minor government functionaries.”

REALTY REALITY

In his complaint, Subramanian Swamy has alleged that the entire transaction was engineered by the promoters of Young Indian in a “malicious” manner to gain real estate assets worth over Rs 2,000 crore.

As on March 31, 2021, AJL held leasehold land in New Delhi and Patna. The New Delhi land leased to it in 1962 for Rs 4,88,599 by the Land & Development under the Housing and Urban Affairs Ministry is where the Herald House stands today. The L&DO ended the lease and had asked AJL to vacate the premises by November 15, 2018. The AJL approached the Delhi High Court in February 2019 where the Centre told the court that the Young Indian company was formed with the “intention to take over Herald House”. The HC dismissed AJL’s plea to restrain the Centre from taking any “coercive steps” for vacating the premises, following which it approached the Supreme Court. The top court stayed the HC order but the matter remains pending.

In Patna, the AJL was allotted lands measuring 0.67 acres and 0.208 acres for 30 years in 1988 and 1990, respectively. The former was cancelled by the Bihar government in 1990. The lease cancellation was challenged before the Patna High Court and the order was set aside. The state government cancelled the land again in 2016 citing the pending challenge to the order in the High Court. The lease of the land measuring 0.208 acre already expired in March 2020 and application for renewal is pending before district administration.

national herald

AJL also held freehold land in Mumbai (Rs 1,39,17,440), Panchkula (Rs 63,49,863) and Lucknow (Rs 4,20,383). The firm owned buildings in Lucknow (Rs 9,94,130), Panchkula (Rs 11,72,87,864), New Delhi (Rs 9,02,487) and Mumbai (Rs 144,85,35,311). All property values are as on March 31, 2021.

In the year ended March 31, 2021, AJL’s rental income totalled Rs 15,08,81,481 (including TDS of Rs 1,18,78,286). The BJP has alleged that since 2011, AJL received Rs 87 lakh per month in rent. In June this year, The Print quoted Enforcement Directorate sources as saying that Young Indian “fraudulently” acquired AJL assets worth Rs 800 crore in violation of Section 3 of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA). “There are properties of AJL in Mumbai, Panchkula, Bhopal, Indore, Delhi that are being used to generate revenue, where is all that money going?” the report quoted the source as questioning.

In March 2016, Mint newspaper carried a report in which real estate research firm Liases Foras looked into the estimated market value escalation from 2010 to 2016 of the real estate held by AJL. It estimated that:

  • Delhi property spread over 63,750 square feet rose in market value from Rs 28.69 crore in 2010 to Rs 57.38 crore in 2016
  • Lucknow property spread over 69,610 square feet rose in value from Rs 3.48 crore in 2010 to Rs 6.96 crore in 2016
  • Panchkula property spread over 37,660 square feet would have been valued at Rs 7.53 crore in 2010 and was worth Rs 13.18 crore in 2016
  • Mumbai property spread over 26,508.605 square feet in the suburb of Bandra would have been valued at Rs 29.16 crore in 2010 and touched Rs 45.06 crore in 2016

The Mint report quoted a Congress source as saying that two AJL properties in Indore and Bhopal were sold for Rs 30 lakh and Rs 80 lakh, respectively, in the 1990s but were under litigation. Liases Foras estimates surmised that AJL’s “land assets were worth about Rs 68.15 crore in 2010 before Young Indian was created” and were valued at Rs 122.57 crore in 2016.

THE CASE BROUGHT BY SWAMY

The questionable transfer of AJL ownership to Young Indian came to light with BJP MP Subramanian Swamy’s complaint on November 1, 2021 in which he alleged that Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and others conspired to cheat and misappropriate funds of shareholders of Associated Journals Limited.

The former Union minister added that the All India Congress Committee’s loans to AJL were illegal since a political party is barred from lending money for commercial purposes under Section 29A to C of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, and Section 13A of Income Tax Act, 1961.

Swamy also put forth that the Delhi property was originally allocated by the government to AJL for the publication of National Herald and Qaumi Azad, and that it could not be used for any other purpose. Despite this, the BJP leader alleged, the property was rented out, including partly to the Ministry of External Affairs to run a Passport Seva Kendra with the rental value running into “several lakhs of rupees”.

The involvement of a “fake” Kolkata-based firm has also been alleged. According to Swamy, Rs 1 crore was taken from the firm named ‘Dotex’, which he alleged was involved in hawala transactions and money laundering. He claims that Rs 50 lakh from this amount was utilised to take over Associated Journal Limited.

“I had also written to the ED that Dotex was already under scanner for its suspicious activities. Later, I came to know that the Congress had issued cheques to Dotex from Switzerland-based banks, and Dotex had converted those currencies into INR and ‘paid’ the Congress… this is a clear instance of money laundering and it comes under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act,” Swamy said in a recent interview to IANS.

Those accused in the case are Sonia Gandhi and Rahul (both directors at Young India); the late Motilal Vora and the late Oscar Fernandes who were directors at AJL and Young India; former journalist Suman Dubey and technocrat Sam Pitroda who are directors at AJL and Young India. The last accused in the case is the company Young Indian.

Back in 2012, Swamy, in his petition, had said that the Election Commission must deregister the Congress. “The Congress party has prima facie committed an offence under the electoral law as well as the Income Tax law for which it is necessary for you (court) to hold hearings… The Election Commission therefore must decide under Paragraph 16A of the said Symbol Order to de-recognize the All India Congress Party.”

The Congress was in power then and several Union ministers had jumped to the Gandhis’ defence. “Unfortunately, the culture of public discourse is now marked by making unsubstantiated allegations every day. Past experience has shown that when such charges are tested on the anvil of truth, they are found to be completely false,” then I&B minister Manish Tewari had said.

Then Congress general secretary Janardan Dwivedi had said about Subramanian Swamy: “Every country and society has these wondrous people who are capable of saying anything at all.”

Ten years later, as the electorally depleted and infighting-torn Congress stages protests to protect the Gandhis, Swamy says “jail term is certain for both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi”.

IN THE COURTS

In June 2014, a Delhi court held that Swamy’s complaint had established “a prima facie case against the accused under Section 403 (dishonest appropriation of property, 406 (criminal breach of trust) and Section 420 (cheating) read with Section 120B (criminal conspiracy) of IPC.

Summoning Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and other accused in the case, Metropolitan magistrate Gomati Manocha’s order said: “From the complaint and the evidence led so far, it appears that Young Indian was in fact created as a sham or a cloak to convert public money to personal use or as a special purpose vehicle for acquiring control over Rs 2,000 crores worth of assets of the Associated Journals Limited.”

“Since all the accused persons have allegedly acted in consortium with each other to achieve the said nefarious design, there are sufficient grounds for proceeding against all of them… These funds could not have been advanced in the form of an interest-free loan to AJL, as no provision exists in the Representation of Peoples Act or the constitution of the party… The accused, prima facie appears to have committed criminal breach of trust on the existing shareholders of AJL as well as against the company,” the court added.

The Gandhis and others appealed against the summons in the Delhi High Court, which on December 15, 2014, stayed the summons till final disposal of the petitions. But in January 2015, Justice VP Vaish recused himself from the case saying he will not hear the matter as his roster of cases had been changed and directed that the petitions be listed before an appropriate bench.

The same month, the Supreme Court asked Subramanian Swamy to make out a case in Delhi High Court for speedy trial. The apex court had then said it could not hear the matter directly as it was pending in the High Court and a stay had been ordered against the trial court’s decision to summon the accused.

The matter in the trial court was listed for December 8, 2015 and on December 7, the High Court refused to quash the summons.

Making scathing observations on the “questionable conduct” regarding how they took control of the publication, Justice Sunil Gaur also turned down the plea of Gandhis and others for exemption from personal appearance in the case in the trial court.

“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 (AJL) via special purpose vehicle i.e. Young India Ltd (YIL), particularly, when the main persons in Congress Party, AJL and YIL are the same, evidences a criminal intent,” the 27-page order said.

The defendants then approached the Supreme Court, which in February 2016, granted them exemption from personal appearance but refused to quash the proceedings.

In March 2016, the trial court allowed Swamy’s application to examine AJL’s balance sheet for 2010-2011, observing that the documents could not be referred to as “personal documents” of the accused. The trial court’s order summoning the balance sheets was set aside by the Delhi HC in July that year. Two years later, in May 2018, the trial court denied Swamy’s plea seeking a directive to the accused to “verify” the material filed by him in the case.

FOLLOWING THE MONEY TRAIL

In August 2014, parallel to the legal drama over the case, the Enforcement Directorate initiated a probe to ascertain whether the AJL-Young Indian relationship amounted to money laundering. The case was closed in August citing “technical reasons”.

According to a PTI report from September 2015, a senior official of the agency had claimed that there was no case made out against Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. The Department of Revenue had then sought legal opinion on the noting of the ED joint director, who was looking into the case earlier, that a PMLA case cannot be made out as there is no predicate offence that could be made out against the two Congress leaders.

BJP leader Subramanian Swamy had claimed that the ED had wrongfully arrived at such a conclusion. Days later, the government cut short the tenure of the then ED chief Rajan Katoch, who was holding the ED Director post in an additional capacity, and appointed Special Director of the agency Karnal Singh as the acting Director.

The ED reopened the National Herald investigation in September 2015 and on December 3, 2018, attached properties worth Rs 64 crore in Panchkula. In May 2020, it attached Rs 16.38 crore worth AJL assets in Mumbai; the property attached was a nine-storey building with two basements and a total built-up area of 15,000 square metres.

national herald

The case picked up heat again in June this year when the ED issued summons to Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. After several postponements initially due to Rahul Gandhi’s travel abroad and Sonia Gandhi testing positive for Covid-19, the duo made first appearances before the agency on June 13 and July 21, respectively. Since then Rahul Gandhi has been questioned for nearly 55 hours at intervals on June 13, June 14, June 15, June 20 and June 21. Sonia Gandhi, meanwhile, has been questioned for 11 hours at intervals on July 21, July 26 and July 27. The Congress held protests against the summons and investigation on each of these days, with senior leaders also courting arrests.

Others questioned include Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge, an office-bearer of Young India, for 12 hours total on April 11 and August 4. Pawan Bansal, interim Congress treasurer and MD of AJL, was questioned on April 12.

national herald

A week after questioning Sonia Gandhi, the ED on August 2 raided the head office of the National Herald at Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg in Delhi and 11 other locations, including the location of the ‘Dotex’ shell company in Kolkata.

The ED on August 3 also temporarily sealed the office space of Young Indian in the premises of National Herald. Officials said the seal was meant to “preserve the evidence” which could not be collected as authorised representatives of Young Indian were not present during the raids a day earlier.

In December 2018, the Supreme Court had allowed the Income Tax Department to reopen tax assessment of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi for 2011-12 in connection with the National Herald case, but had restrained the department from implementing its order till the pendency of the matter before the court.

The income tax probe against the Congress leaders had also stemmed from the probe into Swamy’s complaint. The I-T department had said that the shares Rahul Gandhi has in Young Indian would lead him to have an income of Rs 154 crore and not about Rs 68 lakh, as was assessed earlier. The department had already issued a demand notice for Rs 249.15 crore to Young Indian for the assessment year 2011-12.

BURNING QUESTIONS

At the centre of the entire saga, are four questions:

  • What was the logic behind assigning to Young Indian AJL’s debt of Rs 90 crore which was written off by the Congress?
  • The AJL evidently owned several high-end properties in multiple cities, including Delhi and Mumbai. Why wasn’t even part of those assets used to repay the loan? In fact, AJL showed a net profit of Rs 27.4 crore in 2011-12
  • Why was approval not sought from the over 1,000 shareholders of AJL for the Young Indian deal? Moreover, as on September 29, 2010, AJL said in its annual report that it had 1,057 shareholders. But senior Congress leaders have claimed in recent interviews that the number stood at 761
  • Did it not amount to conflict of interest for Congress treasurer Motilal Vora to write off the debt of AJL, in which he was the Chairman and Managing Director when the deal was inked in December 2010. He was also a shareholder in Young Indian with 12% stake

SECTION 25 COMPANY: CONGRESS DEFENCE

Rahul Gandhi had threatened to sue Subramanian Swamy when the BJP MP first made the allegations in 2012. With the ED investigation gathering steam in recent years, the Gandhis and Congress have accused the ruling BJP of using central agencies for “political vendetta”.

But the Gandhis’ main line of defence lies in Section 25 of the Companies Act. They are understood to have told the ED during their questioning sessions that no personal assets were made in the Congress-AJL-National Herald deal as Young Indian was a “not-for-profit” company established under Section 25 of the Companies Act. They have also told the ED that AJL continues to have possession of all its assets and Young Indian neither “owns nor controls” these properties.

A company incorporated under Section 25 of the Companies Act, 1956 – which later became Section 8 of the Companies Act, 2013 — is registered as a non-profit organisation having a structure similar to a regular company and is an alternative way to promote any charity relating to science, education, culture or any other social cause but without the need to create a trust or society.

A company registered under this Section must reinvest all its income towards the said charity or social cause and the owners cannot receive profits or dividends like a regular company. A company registered under the Section has a relatively flexible and easy compliance arrangement. It is exempt from the statutory requirements of any minimum paid-up capital; it is easy to call for Board meetings with requirement of a smaller quorum; it is
easy to increase the number of directors; it allows easier book-keeping and auditing requirements. These companies also get significant tax benefits depending on the formation of the company. Some Section 25 companies are Azim Premji Foundation, Coca Cola India Foundation and Amazon Academic Foundation.

While the Congress defence is rooted in the fact that Young Indian is a Section 25 company and is registered as a non-profit, the case revolves around allegations that Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and others financially benefited from the creation of Young Indian and the allegedly shady acquisition of AJL assets. The party has claimed that AJL’s assets remain in control of the company founded by Jawaharlal Nehru. But its reins today are in the hands of his descendants.

At its electoral lowest, struggling to keep the flock together and losing even opposition space to parties like the AAP, the National Herald case has shaken the high command as this time the Nehru-Gandhi family is among the accused. A conviction could sound the death-knell for the party or give the so-called Group of 23 dissenters a hook for reinvention without the Nehru-Gandhi baggage.

But for now, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi’s freedom is in peril and the Congress is defending it with all its might.

With inputs from Suchitra Mandal

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