Adani row may have limited political impact
VP Singh successfully used the Bofors scam to corner Rajiv Gandhi. However, to topple Modi’s popularity, Rahul Gandhi can’t just throw a few punches. He will need a knockout blow
Long before Rahul Gandhi, there was VP Singh. The former prime minister (PM) in the late 1980s targeted politician-big business links to project himself as Mr Clean. Singh was fairly successful in his mission; he managed to oust Rajiv Gandhi from power five years after the latter scored the biggest win in Indian history. Can Rahul Gandhi do the same in 2024?
The recent Budget session debate in Parliament has settled the terms of the electoral narrative: Rahul Gandhi seems determined to stick to his claim that the Narendra Modi government is guilty of cronyism and sees Gautam Adani as an enduring symbol of this guilt by association. PM Modi, on the other hand, seems unwilling to join the Adani debate, instead focusing on his “positive” twin agenda of welfarism and nationalism.
In a sense, it’s 2018 all over again, when a year before the general elections, Rahul Gandhi decided to make the Rafale defence deal his core election pitch, accusing the Modi government of promoting the interests of favoured corporates. Then, the “chowkidar chor hai”(the watchman is a thief) slogan did not resonate with the voter, especially as it only allowed Modi with his “main bhi chowkidar” (I, too, am a watchman) counter-campaign and say he was the victim of a politics of abuse and slander.
Is linking the PM to Gautambhai likely to prove any different? Yes and no. Unlike a defence deal that requires documented proof of corruption, a business leader’s connection with a politician can still be exploited through innuendo and hearsay to create enough doubt over the nature of the relationship. It is never wise for a politician to be too proximate to an individual businessperson: The optics of someone being seen as a companion to a political leader can create a disconnect between aam (ordinary) citizens and those who are seen to be too chummy with “suit-boot” billionaires. After all, didn’t the PM once boldly say, “na khaoonga na khane doonga” (I won’t eat, I won’t let them eat), creating a halo of incorruptibility around himself? Then, when a close business friend is accused of stock manipulation, money laundering, and receiving preferential treatment, the charges can’t just be wished away. In this war of perception, especially as the PM has chosen to be defiantly silent on the Adani issue, Rahul Gandhi has landed a few solid political punches.
But landing a punch is one thing, delivering a knockout blow is another. One reason why PM Modi has been such an electorally successful politician is that he has never allowed his opponent to set the terms of engagement. From the 2002 Gujarat election where Modi invoked Gujarati asmita (self-respect) to corner his critics, to the 2019 elections where the post-Pulwama-Balakot muscular nationalism was almost unassailable, the Modi brand of populist politics is built around his ability to link his persona directly with the voter. When, for example, he lists out a series of welfare schemes and beneficiaries, he is seeking to amplify his core messaging of Modi hai to mumkin hai (With Modi, it’s possible), almost as if he alone can deliver to the people.
VP Singh succeeded against Rajiv Gandhi because the latter allowed the Bofors issue to rile him up so much that it stayed in the public mind. It allowed Singh to portray himself as the anti-establishment outsider who was taking on the ruling elite. For Rahul Gandhi, weighed down by the tag of dynastical entitlement and the inherited baggage of Congress-era scams, reflexive anti-Modiism needs a more compelling storyline to succeed.
Moreover, corruption succeeds as a political issue when the urban middle-class lines up behind it. The government’s alleged links to Adani, or the billionaire’s exponential growth in wealth, are unlikely to resonate in the rural heartland where basic necessities matter above all else. It is in urban India where the equity cult has spread beyond just Dalal street that Adani’s meteoric rise is a talking point.
This consumerist middle-class is no longer trapped in socialistic Indian stereotypes of big business as evil: For a large section of this middle-class, Adani’s ascent is a symbol of a new, aspirational India where the moral ambivalence over Mammon has been replaced by a worshipping cult of India’s wealthiest. Recall how, weeks ago, Adani’s emergence as the world’s third-richest person was greeted with a sense of euphoria, even pride.
Which is also why simply raising the red flag against Adani without more proof of malfeasance won’t be enough to shift the middle-class’s allegiance away from PM Modi, which borders on a cultish status. Besides, when every state government is rolling out the red carpet for Adani to invest in their state, why should the middle-class single out the Bharatiya Janata Party as his sole patron? In the Bofors saga, VP Singh used the presence of Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi in Rajiv Gandhi’s inner circle to convince the middle-class that there was corruption in the defence deal. Adani, by contrast, is still perceived as a home-grown nation-builder, investing in core infrastructure sectors. The snowballing controversy has been a reputation hit, but its political impact is less visible for now.
Post-script: While the Congress leadership in Delhi has been posing three questions every day on the Adani affair — recall the late Ram Jethmalani’s 10 daily questions to the Rajiv government on Bofors — the Congress chief ministers and indeed most regional satraps appear far less enthusiastic. Could one reason be the Adani Group’s geographical spread of assets across 22 states cutting across party lines?
Rajdeep Sardesai is senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal