A series of developments over the past week have lifted the spirits of the Congress party, which has been in the doldrums since 2014 after suffering a humiliating defeat in the Lok Sabha elections that year and losing a string of state elections thereafter.
It started with the long-awaited elevation of Rahul Gandhi as party president. This was followed by the Congress’s impressive performance in the Gujarat Assembly elections – it increased its tally to 77 seats while restricting the Bharatiya Janata Party to 99 in the 182-member Assembly.
Then on Thursday, a Central Bureau of Investigation court acquitted former Union Telecom Minister A Raja, DMK leader Kanimozhi, and 16 others of all charges in the 2G spectrum case pertaining to the time the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance ruled at the Centre.
This came as a another morale booster for the party. Congress leaders said that the 2G verdict was particularly special as it had, in one fell stroke, deprived the Bharatiya Janata Party of its major talking point against their party.
The spectrum scam and other graft charges, which surfaced in the second term of the United Progressive Alliance government, spawned a massive anti-corruption movement against it in 2011, which eventually led to the alliance’s downfall in the 2014 elections. The BJP emerged as the chief beneficiary of this campaign. It formed the Union government with a thumping majority while the Congress was reduced to a low of 44 seats in the Lok Sabha.
During the 2014 poll campaign, Narendra Modi took every opportunity to attack the Congress for heading a corrupt government. His high-octane campaign succeeded in making the Congress synonymous with corruption in the eyes of many Indians.
‘Shot in the arm’
“There is no doubt that the 2G spectrum verdict is a shot in the arm for our party,” said former Union minister Kumari Selja. “This case was the mainstay of the BJP’s campaign against us...Today, they have nothing left to say. Lagta hai hamare achhe din aa rahein hain [It looks like our good days are coming].”
Congress leaders said that the BJP campaign had been so effective that it had destroyed the party’s credibility and besmirched the reputation of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former party president Sonia Gandhi.
Having been on the backfoot till now, the mood in the party on Thursday was nothing short of euphoric. Manmohan Singh shed his trademark reticence to react to the verdict. “I do not want to boast of anything,” he told reporters. “The court’s judgment has to be respected. I am glad that the court has pronounced unambiguously. All the massive propaganda which was being done against the UPA was without any foundation. The judgment speaks for itself.”
Former Union minister Kapil Sibal, who faced a severe backlash when he declared there was zero loss to the exchequer in the allocation of 2G spectrum, was especially upbeat. “Manmohan Singh and the UPA government stand vindicated today,” he exclaimed. Coming down heavily on the former Comptroller and Accountant General Vinod Rai , whose audit report had said that the exchequer had suffered a presumptive loss of Rs 1.76 crores, he added: “Today, I have been proved right. There was no loss or any corruption. If there is any scam, it is one of lies of the Opposition and Vinod Rai. Vinod Rai should apologise to the nation.”
Sibal’s remarks were echoed by jubilant party leaders who were only too happy to line up before television cameras to pillory the BJP for spreading canards about their party. “The Gujarat election results and the 2G spectrum verdict have proved to be a double whammy for the BJP,” said Congress general secretary BK Hariprasad. “They had created a huge hype on this issue before the elections and reaped benefit from it…it will now boomerang on them.”
Selja maintained that Thursday’s verdict should not be seen in isolation. Coming soon after the Congress improved its tally in the hard-fought Gujarat polls and Rahul Gandhi’s elevation as party president, it has helped reinforce the positive mood within the party. “This marks a break from the past...Rahul Gandhi and the party can now make a fresh start on a clean slate,” she added.
The court order comes at a time when an aggressive Congress has paralysed proceedings in the Rajya Sabha to demand an apology or explanation from the prime minister for an accusation he made during a Gujarat election rally, that Manmohan Singh conspired with Pakistan to influence the state’s voters.
The government has ruled out an apology or an explanation on the plea that Modi had been wrongly quoted. Feeling emboldened by the court order, Congress members can be expected to escalate their protests in the coming days. “It is now clear that it is the BJP which conspired against us to gain electoral benefit...it is the Congress that is the victim of a conspiracy,” said Congress leader Anand Sharma.
Well aware that Thursday’s verdict could have long-term political implications in Tamil Nadu, Congress president Rahul Gandhi and Manmohan Singh spoke to Kanimozhi to congratulate her on her acquittal. Senior Congress leaders Ghulam Nabi Azad and Anand Sharma called on her at her home in Delhi. Soon after the verdict was announced, speculation was rife in the capital’s political circles about the possibility of a tie-up between the DMK and the BJP. The acquittal comes weeks after Modi called on DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi, Kanimozhi’s father, at his Chennai home.
It is still early to say if the DMK will leave the UPA and join hands with the BJP as the next Lok Sabha polls are not due till 2019. For the moment, however, the Congress is drawing comfort from the DMK’s formal statement ruling out an alliance with the BJP.