The Enforcement Directorate on Thursday questioned Congress chief Sonia Gandhi in a money laundering case related to the National Herald newspaper. The day was a show of strength for the party with street protests and leaders courting arrest across the country.
The questioning of the 75-year-old, who is recovering from COVID-19, lasted for about two hours and the session ended on her request, officials said. She is likely to be called for another round of questioning in the next couple of days, they said.
The session was conducted keeping in mind Covid protocol with everyone participating equipped with a Covid negative certificate.
Sonia Gandhi was questioned by the same assistant director-level investigation officer who interrogated her son Rahul Gandhi in the case — related to alleged financial irregularities in the Congress-promoted Young Indian Private Limited, which owns National Herald. A woman officer was part of the questioning team The summons to the Congress president took political centre stage in Parliament, where opposition leaders raised the issue, and on the streets with party workers staging massive protests.
As parts of central Delhi went into gridlock, Sonia Gandhi reached the federal probe agency’s headquarters in Lutyens Delhi’s A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Road a little after noon escorted by her Z+ category CRPF security cover.
The Congress president, seen wearing a mask, was accompanied by her children Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.
Priyanka Gandhi was allowed to stay in the Pravartan Bhawan headquarters of the agency, away from the questioning room, so she could be with her mother in case of a health issue and give her medicines. However, Rahul Gandhi left soon after.
Ahead of Sonia Gandhi’s appearance, Delhi Police deployed a huge force, including CRPF and RAF personnel, and barricaded the entire over one kilometre stretch between her residence and the ED office.
The Congress party slammed the agency’s action against its top leadership and termed it “political vendetta”.
“All Congress MPs and CWC members have courted mass arrest outside our party headquarters in a show of collective solidarity with Congress president Sonia Gandhi, a target of ‘Vishguru’s’ political vendetta,” said Congress general secretary Jairam Ramesh.
His party colleague P. Chidambaram said the ED is not higher than the Supreme Court.
“What is that the ED wants to ‘investigate’ that will not be examined by the SC,” he asked.
Other Opposition leaders voiced their protest too. Leaders of 13 political parties, including the DMK, Shiv Sena, RJD and the Left, met at Parliament House and issued a statement accusing the government of unleashing a “relentless campaign of vendetta against its political opponents and critics through the mischievous misuse of investigative agencies”.
“Prominent leaders of a number of political parties have been deliberately targeted and subjected to harassment in an unprecedented manner,” the leaders said.
The opposition’s presidential candidate Yashwant Sinha said he strongly condemned the ED’s attitude to humiliate political leaders.
“The officers of ED shd have gone to her residence even if they had questions to ask of Sonia Gandhi,” he said on Twitter.
“Yet again the Extended Department (ED) of BJP is insulating the party from people’s anger towards price rise, joblessness and inflation. By repeatedly calling opposition leaders with zero evidence against them is deliberate political vendetta carried out on behalf of the BJP,” Shiv Sena leader Priyanka Chaturvedi.
The issue echoed in Parliament as well where the Congress and other Opposition parties sought to raise the issue.
With tempers running high, Union minister Pralhad Joshi asked whether the Opposition party believes everyone is equal before the law or not.
“Is she some ‘super human’ because she is the Congress president?” he asked.
The Congress chief had been summoned twice earlier but sought an exemption on grounds of Covid. Her statement was recorded by the agency under criminal sections of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA).
The probe relates to alleged financial irregularities in the Congress-promoted Young Indian Private Limited, which owns the National Herald newspaper.
Rahul Gandhi was questioned by the agency in the case for over 50 hours in sessions spread across five days last month.
The move to question the Gandhis was initiated after the ED late last year registered a fresh case under criminal provisions of the PMLA. This was after a trial court here took cognisance of an Income Tax department probe against Young Indian on the basis of a private criminal complaint by BJP MP Subramanian Swamy in 2013.
Ms. Sonia and Rahul Gandhi are among the promoters and majority shareholders of Young Indian. Like her son, the Congress president too has 38% shareholding.
Mr. Swamy had accused the Gandhis and others of conspiring to cheat and misappropriate funds, with YI paying only ₹50 lakh to obtain the right to recover ₹90.25 crore that AJL owed to the Congress.
In February last year, the Delhi High Court issued a notice to the Gandhis for their response on Mr. Swamy’s plea.
Congress leaders Mallikarjun Kharge and Pawan Bansal were questioned by the ED in the case in April.
The Congress party has maintained that there has been no wrongdoing and Young Indian is a “not-for-profit” company established under section 25 of the Companies Act and hence there can be no question of money laundering.
It is understood that Rahul Gandhi, during his deposition before the ED, stuck to the position that there was no personal acquisition of assets by himself or his family.
According to the ED, assets worth about ₹800 crore are “owned” by the AJL and it wants to know from the Gandhis how a not-for-profit company like Young Indian was undertaking commercial activities of renting out its land and building assets.