Narendra Modi had a favourite recurring theme during his starry campaign to become prime minister: “I have no family, no one to bestow favours. I will be your chowkidar (guard) to ensure that cronies don’t get special treatment”. Modi fancied himself a “fakir” and even during the ill-fated demonetisation exercise, said, “I am a fakir, I will pick up my bag and walk away”.
The Modi campaign’s jabs were clearly aimed at the Gandhi family son-in-law Robert Vadra, who saw a spectacular rise in his fortunes coinciding with the UPA’s years in power. The digs at “damaadji” won Modi electoral dividends. But, is Modi really so crony averse? Does the PMO under him frown on all “helping hands” to friends and family?
The Jay Amit Shah golden touch reported by The Wire blew the lid off a somewhat open secret during the three-and-a-half years of the Modi government. But facts show that it is not only at the Centre that Modi has chosen to turn a benign blind eye to cronyism. The dizzying rise in the fortune of Baba Ramdev, one of Modi’s main campaigners and backers, has been facilitated by the Centre. Recall the ban on Nestle’s popular Maggi noodles while Ramdev introduced his product. But let us consider the cases of some BJP ruled governments too.
BJP chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan is now in his third term in the state. The massive, and by some reckoning, the biggest, scam in the country, Vyapam – an admission and recruitment racket, involving politicians, senior officials and businessmen – has unfolded on his watch. After the outcry over the “unnatural deaths” of 40 individuals, the Supreme Court in June 2015 forced him to hand over investigations to the CBI, which has obligingly made no headway in the case.
The scam involved the entrance exam held for recruitment in government jobs and admissions in educational institutes in the state. A number of undeserving candidates who bribed politicians and officials to get high ranks in the entrance tests.
Chouhan’s wife, Sadhana, is also regarded as extremely “powerful” in Madhya Pradesh and is believed to nurse her own political ambitions, encouraged by her doting husband. Sadhana is often seen sharing the stage and is believed to be instrumental if any “work” has to be done in the state. Despite not sharing the warmest of vibes with Modi and Amit Shah, who it appears have not forgiven him for siding with L.K. Advani before Modi was chosen as the party’s prime ministerial candidate, the duo have turned a blind eye to the Vyapam scam and Sadhana’s emergence as a power centre.
Under the 64-year-old Ayurvedic doctor-turned-politician Raman Singh, who has had an uninterrupted 13-year-run, a powerful family connection – a brother-in-law who gets things done – is whispered about. A huge scam in the state’s civil supply corporation was unearthed last year and is being investigated by the Chattisgarh anti-corruption bureau. Noted lawyer Prashant Bhushan has, via documents he released, alleged how the Singh-led government in 2007 issued a global tender to purchase a specific Agusta 109 power E helicopter. In response, only three companies, all related to AgustaWestland, bid for the contract – making the contract look like a case of favouritism. This came in the wake of the BJP and Modi, during his campaign, raising the AgustaWestland case of the UPA. Yet, even after coming to power, Modi was mum on Singh. Bhushan also raised the issue of an alleged foreign account held by Singh’s son, Abhisek Singh, in the British Virgin Islands. Another recent expose revealed how Sarita Agarwal, wife of Chattisgarh minister Brijmohan Agarwal, acquired 4.12 acres of forest land owned by the government where a resort is being developed.
Panama Papers accused
Despite Modi’s declared war on black money and foreign accounts, he has not hesitated to associate with those allegedly holding Panama accounts, such as Amitabh Bachchan, who is the brand ambassador for a host of Modi’s pet projects like ‘Swachh Bharat’ and ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’. Modi’s relationship with Bachchan goes back to the promotions he did as brand ambassador for Gujarat tourism.
Another actor named in the Panama Papers, Ajay Devgn, has passionately supported demonetisation, saying he did not mind his film Shivay flopping in “national interest”. Ironically, Devgn is also a spokesman in a tax department advertisement.
It is perplexing what message such close proximity between the Panama Papers’ accused and the Modi government sends to the investigating authorities. With most tax authorities mimicking the CBI “caged parrot” act, the war on black money can wait while the Panama account-holding stars endorse Brand Modi.
Vasundhara Raje saga
The most interesting example of a senior BJP leader, however, remains Vasundhara Raje Scindia, whose association with former IPL administrator Lalit Modi is well known. Lalit had a free run in Rajasthan during Raje’s last tenure and used to be the one-stop-shop when it came to getting things done. After he became an Interpol-wanted accused, Raje went to the extent of giving him a private character testimonial.
Raje’s son Dushyant Singh, a BJP MP from Jhalawar, co-owned a company called Niyant Heritage Hotel. The Congress had offered proof of “patent illegal usurpation of a government property” for the construction of the luxury hotel in June 2015. The Congress had also accused Raje of forcible illegal occupation of the Dholpur palace through her friend Lalit. Both Modi and Shah maintained a resolute silence on the Raje affair.
Other instances ignored
Other cases of cronyism that stare us in the face are the fully investigated reports of over-invoicing of coal and power equipment imports by big corporates, which are gathering dust at the economic enforcement agencies. Some of these corporates groups being investigated are also big loan defaulters with banks, but continue to benefit from captive defence contracts under the ‘Make in India’ project, where the government is facilitating the manufacturing of high technology items in the private sector, after signing agreements with countries like France and Israel.
So, when Modi holds forth on “na khaunga na khaney doonga (I will neither eat nor let others eat),” the truth is somewhat different. Modi has turned a blind eye to the rising cases of cronyism and outright corruption on his watch.
As the Jay Shah saga exemplifies, perhaps the promise of a ‘chowkidar’ waging a war on cronyism was just another “jumla“.
Swati Chaturvedi is a journalist and author based in Delhi. She tweets at @bainjal.