A few days before the final phase of Lok Sabha elections in 2014, the entire BJP top brass had shifted to Varanasi to muster up support for Narendra Modi’s election bid. In a private hotel, Amit Shah could be seen with two mobile phones, micro-managing the constituencies; sympathetic columnists made themselves home in the war-room tracking social media; and BJP senior leader Arun Jaitley agreed to hold an impromptu press conference.
Reinforcing the standard narrative of the Modi campaign, he used a phrase that has stayed in memory – how BJP would provide ‘probity in public life’, as opposed to the UPA which was marked by scams after scams.
As multiple leaders of the BJP – ministers at the central level, a powerful chief minister in Rajasthan, a minister from a political dynasty in Maharashtra – get embroiled in controversies, with more than a whiff of impropriety and financial taint, it throws up three fundamental political questions.
The first is if this moment is yet another of those passing news channel-manufactured episodes where the noise overwhelms the substance till the next story comes along or if it has deeper implications?
It is, one can argue, a key rupture in the 2014 political framework, which has been marked by Modi setting out the narrative of change.
The significance of the controversy does not lie in the extent of the impropriety Sushma Swaraj may have committed; the deceit that Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje was trying to pull off by categorically stating that Indian authorities must not get to know of her support for Lalit Modi's immigration application; the deliberate or inadvertent inconsistency in Smriti Irani's affidavit; or the truth of the corruption allegations against Pankaja Munde in Maharashtra.
The real significance lies in the fact that in the battle of perceptions, BJP is losing the plot. No one quite expected the country to transform suddenly and shake off the legacy of the past. But there was a widespread expectation that since Modi was 'clean' and 'strong' - as opposed to Manmohan Singh who was 'clean' but 'weak', the government would remain clean. This is what the PM capitalised on when he said the absence of scams was a sign 'ache din' had arrived during the first anniversary celebrations.
It is precisely this narrative that has got punctured. The opposition is galvanised; the prolonged honeymoon with the media has ended as it takes on its natural adversarial role; and social media, once BJP's den, is quick to prick holes in any defence. Questions about 'probity' in public life will haunt the BJP from now on, like it haunted Congress, and like it has haunted each political dispensation in India. The power of entrenched patterns should not be underestimated. It is business as usual. And no, distinguishing between central and state governments - as some BJP supporters are doing - does not hold water. It is no secret who controls the party today. The buck stops at the Modi-Amit Shah door.
The second question is why has this happened?
If you leave aside the allegations against Smriti Irani, the other three controversies have a common pattern - the nexus between politics and capital. It is here that successive regimes have faltered.
Irrespective of the rhetoric, both Congress and BJP have been closely enmeshed with capital. Democratic politics as we practice, needs money. Elections are expensive business. Politicians accumulate wealth which they invest in businesses, or outsource to certain businessmen to manage. Businessmen hope they have backed the right horses and when the time comes, they can reap rewards for their investment. This is not specific to India, but has been an established fact across the world. Quid pro quo exists.
The question is if political systems are able to institute a degree of transparency (for instance, make public all the funding that is received or have state funding for parties in elections); regulation (for instance, restrict the amount of funding; keep close track of transactions; legalise lobbying); reduce the extent of discretionary decision making in government; and have strong avoidance of conflict of interest laws.
To give credit where its due, the Modi sarkar has recognised that it is in natural resource allocation that discretion and crony capitalism is most acute - they have made an effort to correct this partly through cleaner spectrum and coal allocations. But there are a range of other sectors where discretion is rampant. Cricket is an obvious example where a deeply unhealthy relationship exists between politics as money and glamour - the PM himself is a part of this nexus as a former president of the Gujarat Cricket Association. The line between encouraging a business friendly environment (a stated goal of this government) and between encouraging select, friendly businessmen is a thin one. And BJP, like its predecessors, under the garb of the former, does not shy away from doing the latter.
The third question is what now? Where does Narendra Modi go from here?
The government backed Swaraj. After a few days of hesitation, it sent a top minister and former BJP president Nitin Gadkari to back Raje. Rajnath Singh has said unlike the UPA, NDA ministers do not resign, and in that statement, reflects the government's political calculation.
It appears to have concluded that resignations of UPA ministers were interpreted in public sphere as an admission of guilt - and BJP should not make the same mistake. Modi also does not want to be seen as doing anything under pressure.
There is another crucial factor - the Bihar polls, where the BJP hopes to ride on a promise of providing a clean government. Any sign the government in Delhi was complicit in corruption will dent this image.
But here is the dilemma. Not pressing for resignation or action gives more ammunition to the opposition, and makes the government appear insensitive to public opinion and arrogant, flushed in its numerical majority. It dents Modi's own clean image and triggers comparison with Manmohan Singh who stayed silent. The evidence against Raje is now too strong to ignore, though she herself is a strong leader who has made it clear that she would not go down without a fight.
Modi has to navigate these contradictory impulses and calculations. Either way, he cannot do what he has been doing till now - which is nothing. That approach (of silence, of ignoring an issue hoping it goes away) threatens not just his image but his government's legislative and governance agenda. The NDA is perilously close to betraying its promise of 2014.