Is the moral advantage slipping away for the BJP? By Rajdeep Sardesai
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Is the moral advantage slipping away for the BJP? By Rajdeep Sardesai

The prime minister needs to reclaim the political narrative on corruption before it is too late

columns Updated: Mar 02, 2018 08:17 IST
Rajiv Gandhi,VP Singh,Rahul Gandhi
Congress president Rahul Gandhi at Parliament House, New Delhi, February 1(Arvind Yadav/HT PHOTO)

The defining image of the 1989 Lok Sabha elections was VP Singh campaigning across the country and claiming he had in his pocket the number of the Swiss bank account in which the Bofors pay-off money had been deposited. Singh won the election and became prime minister, but never revealed the account number. Nearly 30 years later, Rahul Gandhi is hoping to do to Narendra Modi what Singh did to his father, Rajiv.

Mr Gandhi now routinely claims that the prime minister is corrupt and has struck deals to protect his VVIP friends in the Rafale aircraft deal and the Nirav Modi banking fraud. He offers no direct proof of any prime ministerial involvement but throws enough muck in the hope that some of it will stick. Unlike Singh, Mr Gandhi cannot claim to be a Mr Clean since he carries the tainted baggage of his party but he does have a similar anti-incumbent advantage.

On the face of it, the allegations are typical of a surcharged political environment in which the spectre of general elections looms large and every move is driven solely by the need to set the poll agenda. For the opposition in particular, this is open season, a period of ‘hit and run’ politics in which the singular aim is to diminish the ruling party’s credibility in the eyes of the voter, a period during which perceptions matter as much as reality.

It is precisely this no-holds-barred perception game that is being fought at the moment. For three years and a bit, Narendra Modi was able to ride high on the aura of being an incorruptible moral crusader, a political ‘chowkidar’ who could proudly boast, ‘na khaoonga, na khane doonga’. It was an image that Mr Modi was able to contrast successfully with his predecessor who was lampooned as ‘Maun-Mohan’ Singh, a weak and silent leader who had allowed vaulting corruption to flourish under his watch. It is an image which he seeks to protect today when his government has finally arrested Karti Chidambaram, the son of the former finance minister, after dithering for more than a year.

Indeed, in a noisy media environment in which sharp sound bites and tweets matter more than substance, Rahul Gandhi has, in a sense, borrowed from the BJP’s 2014 election playbook. Then, the BJP repeatedly raised the Rs 1.76 lakh crore telecom ‘presumptive loss’ figure as evidence of Congress perfidy; no amount of long winded explanations from the UPA ministers could erase the number from the popular imagination. Now, when Mr Gandhi throws up Rs 11,000 crore and counting as the loss in the Nirav Modi fraud case, no one is actually doing the maths: it is simply a large enough number to leave the common man fulminating at a moth-eaten banking system in which VVIPs can loot and scoot even while the ordinary bank depositor gets harsh notices after a monthly default.

The Modi government could legitimately claim that the practice of granting hefty bank loans to favoured corporations without due diligence was a UPA failing. Since the prime minister likes to target the Nehru-Gandhi family for the country’s multiple crisis, he might even be tempted to blame Indira Gandhi for the original sin of bank nationalisation. But the truth is, the sloth and corruption of pre-2014 India cannot be used as a n excuse in 2018. After all, the voters defeated the UPA in 2014 for their failed governance. You cannot seek double punishment for the same crime.

Which is why Mr Modi now needs to reclaim the political narrative on corruption before it is too late. No doubt the Benami act and the bankruptcy code are steps in the right direction, but unless there is visible action against the big fish, a sense of scepticism will persist among an increasingly cynical voting class that corruption is an issue regarding which major political parties are only shadow-boxing. The moot question now is: can Narendra Modi bring back Nirav Modi to face the law in this country, or will the jeweller become another exiled fugitive whose presence in safe foreign climes becomes an embarrassment for the Modi government? In 1989, VP Singh pointed the needle of suspicion at Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi but never brought him to justice once the election was won; Modi needs to bring the diamantaire back or allow the moral advantage of being a tough, no-nonsense ‘chowkidar’ to slowly slip away.

Post-script: In the Karnataka election campaign, the prime minister has gone on the offensive, accusing Congress chief minister Siddaramaiah of being a corrupt ‘Mr 10 per cent’. But that he has chosen to make the charge with the BJP’s chief ministerial face BS Yeddyurappa by his side only weakens the political argument. Wasn’t Yeddyurappa jailed and forced out of office over corruption charges not too long ago? Or is corruption quite simply the ultimate political equaliser?

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author.

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Mar 01, 2018 17:00 IST