In this exhilarating season of allegations and counter-allegations against public figures and their relatives, there has also been a plethora of silly statements that have helped lighten the overall mood of disgust, despondency and cynicism. The Union minister, Beni Prasad Varma, has led the pack with his assertion that the charges against his colleague, Salman Khurshid, are ridiculous because the alleged misuse of some Rs 74 lakh of public money is a piffling amount. A disoriented Virbhadra Singh added to the mirth by threatening to break the cameras of journalists who dared ask him about the remarkable coincidence of alleged payments to one ‘VBS’ by a corporate body and his sudden fascination for high-value insurance policies. And even the otherwise suave, Oxford-educated Khurshid provided entertainment with his filmi-style dialogue about replacing ink with blood.
The farcical element apart, there are two statements that stand out, not least because they have been made by people who are at the very top of the political pyramid. The first was by the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, on October 5, a few hours after Arvind Kejriwal charged her son-in-law, Robert Vadra, of leveraging his privileged position to make windfall gains in the real estate business. Vadra, she claimed “is a businessman”, adding that he had not misused the name of the Gandhi family.
The second statement was by the Bharatiya Janata Party leader and National Democratic Alliance chairman, L.K. Advani, on October 25. This came a day after the media carried detailed reports of the shell companies run from apparently fictitious addresses that had invested in the Purti group of companies run by the BJP president, Nitin Gadkari. To those familiar with business practices, the implication was that a significant portion of Gadkari’s businesses were funded through the black economy. This in turn raised questions about Gadkari’s role in mobilizing this funding. Was this, it was asked, another example of ‘political equity’?
In defence of his party president, Advani first claimed, quite predictably, that the BJP was the victim of a Congress-sponsored conspiracy “to paint the entire political class with the same brush to minimise… and neutralise the unprecedented charges against the ruling UPA”. However, this was coupled with a curious assertion: that the allegations were about standards of business and not misuse of power or corruption.
There is a similarity between Advani’s expression of solidarity with Gadkari and Sonia’s defence of her daughter’s husband: both implied that sharp practices were part and parcel of business, and that somehow was a far lesser offence than unethical politics. In other words, if it could be demonstrated conclusively that Vadra’s cosy relationship with DLF and his ability to fast-track land sales in Haryana were unrelated to his political clout, the Congress would have nothing to answer. Likewise, by Advani’s logic, there was a Great Wall dividing Gadkari the BJP president and Gadkari the entrepreneur. If Advani is to be believed, for the allegations to stick, the ‘conspirators’ would have to demonstrate that Gadkari’s businesses grew and prospered owing to benefits he accrued as a politician.
It is understandable that Sonia would want to detach Vadra’s reputation as a flashy businessman with an astonishing sense of entitlement from the political image built up by her family over decades. At the same time, she was also fully aware that the assault on the tactless Vadra was a proxy attack on the entire structure of dynastic politics that has become the mainstay of the Congress. It is unlikely that she was unaware that the mere mention of Vadra opened many doors and fast-tracked transactions (including land transfers at prices below the circle rate) that would have, in the normal course, taken an inordinately long time to complete.
Sonia Gandhi’s fire-fighting strategy was based on two calculations. First, it was absolutely imperative to prevent an official probe by the department of company affairs and other agencies into Vadra’s businesses. Fortunately for her, both Veerappa Moily and the finance minister, P. Chidambaram, obliged with suo motu certificates of innocence to Vadra. The peremptory midnight transfer of the Indian administrative service officer, Ashok Khemka, from a crucial land registration department in Haryana served as a warning to other conscience-stricken bureaucrats to come to the aid of the dynasty or face the consequences.
Secondly, the Congress calculated, perhaps quite cynically, that public memory is short and that unless Vadra himself did something silly like display his intellectual prowess on Facebook yet again, the issue would subside before the general election. The Congress is also anxious to combine its faith in public forgetfulness with moral equivalence — the 21st century version of Indira Gandhi’s infamous assertion that corruption is an “international phenomenon”. In this endeavour, the BJP’s embarrassment over Gadkari has come as a bonanza.
In defending its president, the BJP appears to have got itself into an almighty jam. The initial revelations of Gadkari’s alleged corruption by Arvind Kejriwal in his much-publicized press conference last week left most people underwhelmed and there was a basis for Arun Jaitley to claim that India Against Corruption was making a mountain out of a molehill. Yet, by the time the media, taking its cue from Kejriwal, conducted its own investigations into the Purti group, the charges could no longer be dismissed as insignificant. Prima facie, Gadkari certainly had a case to answer.
If the logic of Advani’s contrived distinction between business and politics had indeed been pursued, the BJP should have left the defence of Gadkari to the man himself. Since the business dealings of Gadkari were undertaken independent of his party, there was no earthly reason why Sushma Swaraj and Jaitley should have appeared before the cameras to defend him. Most surprising of all was Advani’s intervention on behalf of Gadkari the politician. Popular memory may well be short but BJP workers at least may not have forgotten that last year Advani expended a huge amount of the party’s resources organizing a nationwide yatra against corruption and black money. At that time Advani did not care to make a distinction between unethical business practices and corrupt politics. To him, at that time, both fed on each other. Why should the ground rules be changed for Gadkari?
This is a question that must also be addressed to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh whose chief, Mohan Bhagwat, devoted a large part of his annual Vijaya Dashami address to attacking corruption. The RSS has long felt that its swayamsevaks had imbibed the necessary samskaras to become good citizens and emerge as leaders of a resurgent India. This is the reason why it has preferred the leadership of the BJP to vest with those who have a strong background of involvement with the sangh. Gadkari was picked up from provincial politics and thrust into the national stage because it was felt that he had the right values and priorities. Now this belief has been called into question. Should the RSS go into denial and fall back on an individual’s long-standing loyalty to an organization? Or should it be worried that the presence of Gadkari at the helm of the BJP will give a handle to the Congress and allow it to shift the agenda away from corruption and thereby sap the nation’s inner vitality?
Kejriwal and his associates may not get far in electoral politics but their contention that the entire political class has become venal has struck a chord. For the BJP, the political cost of Gadkari and Vadra being put on par will be more damaging than for the Congress.