Besides causing TV news anchors to go apoplectic daily, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s studied silence on the charges of impropriety against his cabinet colleague external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, and party colleague Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje has given rise to several theories in Delhi’s circle of political pundits about what he may eventually do with regard to the two episodes — both involving a controversial former cricket tournament organiser, Lalit Modi. He will take action, goes one theory, but not now and only after the furore by the Opposition and in the media has died down; he will do something just before the monsoon session begins, goes another; he will sack one and cut the other down to size before the Bihar elections are held, says a third, and so on.
Delhi’s pundits are ingenious when it comes to such theories but the fact is that after raging like a wildfire for a couple of weeks, the two episodes involving Ms Swaraj and Ms Raje have all but vanished from the media’s and the public’s radar as swiftly as they had flared up. The thing is that it takes a political toll on national parties such as the BJP or the Congress when they’re forced to take action against powerful and well-entrenched chief ministers, no matter what they may be accused of. In 2008, BS Yedyurappa became Karnataka’s and the south’s first BJP chief minister but was soon embroiled in scams relating to land deals and illegal iron ore exports. When the controversy blew up, he was forced to quit his office and the party. The ouster affected the party’s fortunes badly: the BJP lost the next state elections. Later, before the 2014 parliamentary polls, when the BJP brought back Yedyurappa, it won 17 of the 28 Lok Sabha seats from Karnataka.
The Congress has also had to treat some of its powerful state satraps with kid gloves. In Himachal Pradesh, Virbhadra Singh used his clout and forced the party to project him as its leader in the state polls in 2012. To be fair, the Congress won and Singh became CM for the sixth time. Last year he and his wife were accused of receiving payments from a private company linked to his government’s approval of a power project in his state — a serious offence for a chief minister if proved true — but thus far Singh has refused to quit and his party has defended him, presumably because of his strength in Himachal Pradesh. In contrast, when Maharashtra’s Congress chief minister Ashok Chavan, a relative lightweight, was charged with involvement in a housing scam in 2010, he had to resign although charges against him haven’t been established.
In 2013, Ms Raje, currently in the midst of a controversy (she has been accused of supporting the cricket promoter Modi in a London court and of having business links with him), led the BJP to win 163 out of 200 assembly seats in Rajasthan, where the BJP also won all 25 seats in last year’s Lok Sabha polls. The reasons for her party defending her may not be a surprise. Mr Modi’s government has also defended Ms Swaraj, who helped the same cricket promoter get travel permits when his Indian passport was revoked and her husband and daughter were his lawyers. Ms Swaraj said she acted on humanitarian grounds and her government bought that explanation.
There may be a bigger reason why the government and the BJP have supported Ms Swaraj and Ms Raje during the recent controversy. Mr Modi led his party to power by fighting an election on the promise of development and on the assurance that if the BJP came to power it would provide a government that was squeaky clean and corruption-free. It is a promise that the prime minister and his colleagues proudly say the government has delivered on. Taking any action on the basis of charges that are levelled by a weak Opposition (after last year’s elections, the Congress is a faint shadow of what it was) could amount to admitting that it hasn’t.
Sanjoy Narayan is the editor-in-chief of Hindustan Times. He tweets as @sanjoynarayan.