A defensive Congress went into damage control mode on Friday in a brave effort to dispel the growing public perception that the party was disrupting Parliament over the National Herald case.

Angry Congress members have held up proceedings in Parliament to protest the government’s “vendetta politics” since Tuesday, a day after the Delhi High Court dismissed party president Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s plea seeking exemption from personal appearance in the pending National Herald case in a trial court.

Having started on a high note, the Congress found itself on the backfoot by the end of the week as the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government successfully sent out the message that the principal opposition party was blocking Parliament only to protect its “First Family”.

Path of confrontation

As a result, senior Congress leaders went out of their way to underline that their protests were not about the National Herald case but about the different yardstick adopted by the government in dealing with BJP leaders and the opposition parties. Senior Congressman Ghulam Nabi Azad, leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha, was at pains to make this point in the Upper House while justifying the party’s decision to derail proceedings.

In this connection, he recalled that the opposition had pressed for action against BJP chief ministers Vasundhara Raje, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Raman Singh in the last session but the government had dismissed its demand. It was the same when opposition parties sought the removal of Union minister VK Singh for his offensive remark about Dalits, Azad remarked. No action is taken against BJP chief ministers but opposition leaders are being harassed, he reiterated both inside and outside the Rajya Sabha.

Congress leaders further maintained that their protests were not confined to the National Herald case but to the “politics of vendetta” unleashed by the Modi government which, they said, was evident from the spate of cases lodged against Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh and former Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and former Finance Minister P Chidambaram’s son. “It is not just one instance but there have been a series of cases in the recent past,” said a senior Congress leader.

Having embarked on this path of confrontation, the Congress is now finding it difficult to sustain its agitation. There are clear signs of nervousness in the party as it becomes increasingly evident that the party has lost the perception war. The belated explanations offered by Azad and others have found few takers even among Congress members who point out privately that the impression has gone out that they were stalling the Goods and Services Tax Bill in order to shield Sonia and Rahul Gandhi.

Tables have turned

Congress leaders are meeting on Sunday to assess the situation and finalise their strategy for the next week. The party has to decide if it can afford to continue their protests as originally planned till December 19 when Sonia and Rahul Gandhi were to appear in a trial court or allow Parliament to function.

With Finance Minister Arun Jaitley slated to meet Congress leaders next Monday to sort their differences over the GST Bill, it appears that the principal opposition party may be forced to end this current standoff. The Congress had conveyed its three objections to the Bill when Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited his predecessor Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi for tea to discuss the GST Bill at the beginning of this session. Jaitley had subsequently met Azad and former Union minister Anand Sharma to give the government’s views on their demands.

The Congress is under tremendous pressure to tone down its rhetoric as the political narrative has changed dramatically since the winter session of Parliament commenced two weeks ago. An upbeat opposition was all set to corner the government on the issue of tolerance as it realised that the ruling alliance was on the back foot after its humiliating defeat in the recent Bihar assembly elections. The changed situation forced Modi to strike a conciliatory note in his speeches in Parliament as he expressed unusual willingness to accommodate the opposition.

But the National Herald case has put the government back in the driver’s seat. BJP leaders, who had been directed not to speak out of turn for fear of alienating the opposition, are back in attack mode. While party spokespersons are no longer shying away from attacking the Congress, Jaitley put out a statement on Thursday rubbishing its claim that it was a victim of vendetta. “The answer to the Congress Party’s leadership landing up in a ‘Chakravyuh’ is to fight their battle legally and not disrupt Parliament,” he said. “By disrupting democracy the financial web created by the Congress leaders cannot be undone.”

For the Congress, the National Herald issue could not have come at a worse time. Encouraged by its performance in the Bihar elections, the Congress leadership was turning its attention to revamping the party organisation and preparing for the next round of assembly polls. But the party’s efforts will now be directed at “protecting” Sonia and Rahul Gandhi whose personal image has taken a hit following the disclosures in the National Herald case.