All eyes are on Congress president Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi, with mother and son set to appear in a Delhi trial court on Saturday in connection with the National Herald case. They are among those accused of cheating and misappropriation of funds related to the takeover the now-defunct newspaper.

The party has asked all its office-bearers and Members of Parliament to be present in solidarity at the Congress headquarters on Saturday afternoon, when Sonia and Rahul Gandhi and their lawyers make the short trip from Akbar Road to the Patiala House court. Congress treasurer Motilal Vora and party general secretary Oscar Fernandes have also been summoned to the court, apart from journalist Suman Dubey and Sam Pitroda, a former adviser in the United Progressive Alliance government.

There has been a great deal of suspense over the past few days about whether the Congress leaders will seek bail or choose to go to jail should such a situation arise. However, party insiders clarified that the question of “bail or jail” is not relevant at this early stage, adding that the Gandhis would apply for a personal bond stating that they will appear before the court as and when required.

Political gains

The party has held a series of meetings over the past few days to plan for the event. The Congress hopes to gain political mileage from the court appearance of its top leaders, just as when former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was slapped with a series of charges in 1977 during the tenure of the Janata Party government.

The Congress had initially decided to gather a large number of party members from across the country to accompany the Gandhis to court, especially after Sonia Gandhi had raised a battle cry with the declaration that she was not scared of anything. “Don’t forget I am Indira Gandhi’s daughter-in-law,” the Congress president had declared last week. The Congress also disrupted parliamentary proceedings, accusing the Modi government of indulging in “politics of vendetta". Rahul Gandhi accused the Prime Minister’s Office of direct involvement in the case, which was filed by Bharatiya Janata Party leader Subramaniam Swamy.

However, the Congress has now decided against making big splash in Delhi. Instead, state units have been instructed to organise agitations across the country by burning effigies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The party switched strategy after its legal team advised that any massive show of strength could prove to be counter-productive, as the courts may see it as an attempt to intimidate the judiciary. Even so, party loyalists and the youth wing are likely to amass a crowd of supporters at the headquarters, in what is being described as a “spontaneous show of support”.

Doubts abound

Although the Congress has decided to fight the National Herald case both legally and politically, its leaders are plagued by doubts about whether its cry of “political vendetta” will actually help revive the party.

The Congress’ decision to stall Parliament on this issue did not work out particularly well, with the general perception being that the party was blocking the government’s legislative agenda because of a personal legal matter. Consequently, the party was forced to bring up other issues to justify its protests in the Parliament.

The Congress president’s legal advisors – former Union minister Kapil Sibal and party spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi – have come in for criticism from a section in the party which blames them for landing the Gandhis in this mess. Some claim that their poor handling of the case has pushed Congress workers on the defensive.

Not many in the party are convinced that Sonia Gandhi’s decision to play the victim card will pay off. Their reasoning is that unlike her mother-in-law, Sonia Gandhi is not a mass leader. In addition, the developments in the National Herald case have tainted her image – this is the first time that the Congress president and vice-president are under the scanner for corruption. With Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra facing similar charges in his business dealings, the Congress party’s first family finds itself on shaky ground.

The hearing comes at an inopportune time for an upbeat Congress, which was all set to corner the National Democratic Alliance government after the Bharatiya Janata Party’s humiliating defeat in the Bihar assembly election last month.

The Bihar result had energised Congress workers, who hoped its victory as part of the Grand Alliance would be a turning point. It also served as a reminder that Narendra Modi was not invincible. But the legal threat now facing its top leaders has once against dented the party’s credibility.