India’s Parliament is witnessing turbulence once again.
This time, however, the government is on the offensive. Based on a judgment of an Italian court, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MPs have alleged that kickbacks in the AgustaWestland chopper scam during the UPA regime went all the way up to Sonia Gandhi and her office.
The Congress is furious at the charges.
And in an anyway acrimonious political climate, the episode has meant Parliament will see little productive work.
Parliamentary disruptions are not unusual in India. But here is the rub. In this case, it is the majority party holding the Opposition to account, rather than the other way around.
Here is how it is supposed to work in a Westminster parliamentary system. While the ruling party runs the executive, the opposition plays a key role in the legislature. The opposition is meant to check government’s actions and excesses, shadow the ministries and policies, put out a critique and inform the public sphere about what’s wrong in the way the state is being run.
Given the ample space for discretionary decision making and conflict of interest issues, a key opposition function is to flag possible instances of corruption. This is not to suggest that the mistakes of the opposition parties need not be highlighted - their members too are elected representatives who need to be held accountable. But the dominant logic of parliamentary accountability is to keep the executive responsible.
What we are witnessing is the government telling the House, and the citizens, that the Opposition is corrupt.
So why is this happening?
The primary reason is the baggage of the past. Politics is often marked by continuities, rather than rupture. A key BJP campaign plank in 2014 was the corruption that thrived under Congress. Indeed, public opinion began turning against the UPA after the 2G scam and the allegations of misappropriation during Commonwealth Games - with the Anna Hazare agitation playing a key role.
The BJP reaped the political benefit. And it is in the party’s interest to constantly remind voters of the allegations that the UPA was crushed under. The NDA sees this as a great opportunity for it has remained relatively untainted - so far - in its tenure and can project an image of relative honesty.
This is also a way to beat anti-incumbency. Even for those voters disillusioned with the performance of the Modi government, the parliamentary drama is meant to be a reminder - look at the opposition, and remember why you voted it out.
Second, Sonia Gandhi’s Italian origins give the BJP more ammunition - all it has to do is whisper that these connections enabled the deal in the first place. Indian voters don’t care much for the foreign origin theory, as they have voted for Congress both in 2004 and 2009. But the campaign does appeal to its base, and BJP doesn’t want to let go of the opportunity.
The fact that the PM and BJP president have a deep personal aversion to the Gandhi family is an open secret in Delhi. Subramanian Swamy’s recent nomination to the Rajya Sabha is a reward for his persistence in pursuing the National Herald Case against the family.
It is thus no coincidence that he was the chosen one in naming Sonia directly in the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday, which outraged the Congress. The fact that a defence deal had tarred Rajiv Gandhi irreversibly is in the background.
The third reason is the inefficacy of the Opposition itself. Instead of setting the agenda, the Congress is often left responding to the agenda. It hasn’t quite been able to build alliances, reach out to public opinion, and explain its case.
It also does not seem to have done its homework adequately in putting the government on the mat on other issues which may have wider public resonance. So it is no surprise that it seems to be taken aback by the government belligerence.
If there are new revelations in a corruption case, it must be pursued. The recent Italian court verdict has once again highlighted the need for an urgent conclusion to an independent inquiry into the chopper scam. And no one must be spared legally.
But politically, Congress has already been punished for its real and perceived corruption. The fact that the ruling party can still use the issue to push the already marginal Congress on the defensive in Parliament shows how much the Grand Old Party is burdened by the past.