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ONE MORE GATE

- Popular perceptions troubling for the future of India

Last week, when Arvind Kejriwal first dragged the son-in-law of the Gandhi family into public controversy, there was a facile suggestion that shareholders should ask DLF — the real estate company which is also in the eye of the storm — why it gave a generous unsecured loan to someone who had no business track record worth writing home about. This week, after the anti-corruption crusader-turned politician went public with ‘proof’ of the cronyism that marked the relationship between the DLF and the Congress-controlled government of Haryana, this question is unlikely to be pursued. If the ‘proof’ supplied by Kejriwal is to be believed, the top brass of DLF should instead be complimented on its farsightedness. In enabling Robert Vadra to multiply a Rs 50 lakh investment into a handsome Rs 300 crore in just three years or so, the DLF could be said to have gained many times more. It was, by all accounts, a very satisfying, mutually exploitative relationship.

As political scandals go, what was instantly dubbed ‘Damaad Gate’ by excitable members of the twitterati doesn’t belong to the same league as the 2-G rip-off and Coalgate. There are no long series of zeros pointing to the notional losses suffered by the treasury. The charge is not short-changing the public exchequer but conferring a most-favoured-entity status on a company with which Vadra was associated. Using a historical analogy, the kerfuffle over Vadra, the DLF and the Bhupinder Singh Hooda government of Haryana belongs to the same league as the Maruti sweetheart deal involving Sanjay Gandhi and the Bansi Lal government of Haryana which was exposed by the indefatigable Communist Party of India (Marxist) member of parliament, Jyotirmoy Basu, nearly four decades ago — and which, many insist, were among the factors that triggered the Emergency in 1975.

For the government, the timing of Kejriwal’s maiden political intervention was singularly inopportune. Having partially succeeded — thanks in no small measure to extremely obliging media — in diverting public attention from the coal scandal that even left the prime minister singed and having talked up the capital markets with the promise of economic reforms and fiscal responsibility, a beleaguered Congress now finds itself battling a fire that has reached its sanctum sanctorum — the private chambers of the Gandhi family. At stake is the very credibility of the family that has provided both the inspiration and the glue to keep India’s largest political party together. Damaad Gate has all the ingredients to become another embarrassing Bofors moment for the Congress. Certainly, the mood of disgust and despondency that has overwhelmed India after more than two years of non-governance has enhanced the likelihood of a wild card such as Kejriwal puncturing the pretensions of the high and mighty.

However, like cricket, politics is also a game of glorious uncertainties and it is impossible to be certain that this latest storm will set in motion an irreversible process of downfall for the fragile United Progressive Alliance-2. Yet, at the same time, Damaad Gate has the potential of unsettling some of the cherished assumptions governing public life.

First, the apparent ease with which the DLF allegedly benefited from its close association with Vadra has added to the prevailing exasperation with the crony capitalism that has prevented a genuine entrepreneurial culture from striking deep roots in India. The alacrity with which the finance minister, the law minister and the corporate affairs minister jumped into the ring to do battle on behalf of Vadra, and issued him certificates of innocence are reminiscent of caricatured versions of corrupt dictatorships in faraway lands. India has always flaunted its credentials as the world’s largest democracy. The grim realities of the prevailing political culture do not justify the swagger. From a distance India seems just another rotten egg in the international basket.

In the past, the government of the day had often conspired to subvert inquiries into alleged corporate wrongdoing. Yet, the suo motu interventions of key cabinet ministers suggested that there are areas of political life that are considered no-go areas by the Congress and deemed unworthy of both public intrusiveness and the ethics of corporate governance. To outsiders, not least foreign capital that is being so assiduously wooed by the government, this behaviour has the potential of sending out an unwelcome message: that it is advantageous to view Indian capitalism through the prism of a Third World banana republic where cronyism opens doors and cuts deals.

Secondly, Damaad Gate raises troubling questions about the quality of Indian democracy. It is by now known in relevant circles that documentary evidence of the cosy DLF-Vadra relationship had been in circulation since February 2011 and, indeed, formed the basis of a very cautious report by a financial daily in March 2011. At that time, there were at least two senior Bharatiya Janata Party leaders — Arun Jaitley and Yashwant Sinha — who were prepared to raise the issue in Parliament and bring it into the public domain. They were prevented from doing so by the party’s all-important core committee on the ground that it would be wrong to target the children of political opponents.

This apparent act of high-mindedness has now recoiled on the party. It is now being alleged, not least by the politicians spawned by the Anna Hazare movement, that the BJP’s silence was proof of the complicity of the entire political class in perpetuating a system based on cronyism and corruption. The charge is not entirely untrue and is likely to generate a political cost. More than anything else, the BJP’s reluctance to hit the holy dynastic cow has ensured that the political benefits of the disgust against unethical practices won’t fully accrue to the principal opposition party.

The consequences of this immoral equivalence are ominous. It is now becoming increasingly apparent that mainstream political parties, including regional parties, are attracting precisely the type of people public life can do without. The bright young idealists who entered the political arena in the past via student activism are now increasingly shying away from the main parties and either opting out of politics altogether or drifting to non-governmental organizations and protest movements like the one headed by Kejriwal. The cumulative loss to Indian democracy is incalculable.

Finally, and equally troubling for the future of India, is the growing impression that the culture of Indian business is by and large rotten and that reposing faith in the private sector as a powerful engine of economic growth carries an unacceptable social cost. There was implicit arrogance in Vadra mocking the anti-corruption zealots as “mango people” which has not gone entirely unnoticed. It has reinforced a growing popular conviction — which the 2G and coal allotment scandals helped perpetuate —that ‘reforms’ are merely the pompous façade to hide an economic system based on organized loot. Till a few years ago, political parties undertook a fine balancing act between populist politics and sensible economics. With the anti-corruption epidemic hitting the country, it will be very difficult for mass politicians to argue that a market-oriented, liberal economic regime provides India the best opportunity to extricate itself from endemic backwardness. The growing ‘sab chor hai’ mood will make it virtually impossible for the reformists to convince the electorate that they need to pay more for power, fuel and cooking gas for the sake of a system that is tailor-made for the well connected.

Circumstances generate strange symbols of both affection and disrepute. In the past fortnight, the popular imagination has come to associate Robert Vadra with greed, privilege and arrogance — everything that Middle India has learnt to despise. As the imagery of a brat percolates down the social ladder, the Gandhis will have to do some hard sell to redeem the family reputation.