Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi has handed over her position to her son Rahul Gandhi. Photo: Reuters
Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi has handed over her position to her son Rahul Gandhi. Photo: Reuters

The powerful Nehru-Gandhi family of India are untouchable… Or are they?

The Delhi High Court’s refusal last week to stay income tax (IT) proceedings against Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi says loud and clear that the Gandhi family are not above the law despite the power they still wield and the privileges they have enjoyed for decades.

The IT proceedings are linked to a money laundering case involving three entities: Associated Journals Ltd (AJL), which owned the now-defunct Congress-run newspaper National Herald; Young Indian Pvt Ltd (YIL), which acquired AJL in 2010 and in which Sonia and Rahul hold 83.3% shares; and All India Congress Committee (AICC), which the Gandhis lead and which constitutes the central decision-making assembly of the Indian National Congress party.

Subramanian Swamy, the stormy petrel of India’s incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), filed a complaint in 2012 after the Herald, which was founded by India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in 1938, ceased operations in April 2008.

Swamy alleged that YIL was set up by the Gandhis to acquire immovable assets from the National Herald worth millions of dollars. AJL had bought the paper at a concessional rate and at a prime location in Delhi.

In a notice to YIL early this year, the income tax department said Sonia and Rahul were the real beneficiaries of this transaction. The notice also claimed that Sonia’s daughter, Priyanka Gandhi – along with Rahul – bought additional shares of AJL to ensure the family obtained full control over the company.

AICC had granted an interest-free loan of Rs902 million (US$14 million) to AJL to keep the National Herald running. When AJL was shut in 2008, it owed Congress Rs902 million.

Swamy, in his complaint, said YIL later paid a paltry Rs5 million to secure the right to recover the debt. This was easy because two of YIL’s shareholders, Motilal Vora and Oscar Fernandes, are also directors of AJL. In fact, Motilal Vora is chairman of AJL.

The court observed that all those involved in the “sham” transactions were linked to Congress, AJL and YIL. Congress denies any wrongdoing and accuses federal agencies of distorting facts.

The Gandhi family are not above the law despite the power they still wield and the privileges they have enjoyed for decades

YIL has real estate assets at prime locations in many state capitals in northern India. And this brings into the picture another family member – Sonia’s son-in-law, Robert Vadra, who also happens to be in a spot of bother over shady real estate deals in the state of Haryana.

People familiar with a confidential inquiry report told a daily newspaper recently that Vadra’s company, Skylight Hospitality, made illegal profits of Rs500 million (US$7 million) by buying property from one real estate developer and selling it to another at a sky-high price after obtaining a licence to change land use in 2008.

Haryana was then ruled by a Congress government led by Bhupinder Singh Hooda.

A property bought by Vadra’s wife, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, in February 2010 is also said to have come under the radar of Justice SN Dhingra’s Commission, which prepared the report.

Vadra denies any wrongdoing and alleges a witch-hunt against him. When a reporter sought his comments on the land deals, Vadra shoved his microphone away and shouted at him.

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Documents accessed by a television news channel recently showed that Vadra’s mother, Maureen Vadra, had been enjoying VIP security, at taxpayers’ expense, for the past 13 years at her Delhi home.  The round-the-clock security involved six police personnel.

Denouncing that report, Vadra said his mother should be left alone and that the government could remove his own security as well.

The Congress party put the ball in the federal government’s court by seeking an explanation as to why such security measures had been allowed to continue for Vadra’s mother.  

Earlier, stung by criticism over the “no-frisking” privilege he enjoyed at airports, Vadra had asked the ministry of civil aviation to remove him from the no-frisk list. The privilege is given to top political leaders and dignitaries. Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka also enjoy this privilege.

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