The party high command has perfected the art of blowing hot and cold with opposition leaders based on their current usefulness. The most glaring example of this, of course, is the way the Gandhi family has been targeted.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the Narendra Modi government only wants to use Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law, Robert Vadra, as a whipping boy to damage the political credibility of the Gandhis and the Congress party. Vadra is too juicy a target to be wasted in just one or two cases of alleged corruption. Modi and Amit Shah are well aware of this. So a formal criminal case will not be launched against Vadra, but neither will he be let off in the cases of alleged corruption. One suspects this is a conscious political strategy by the BJP. Why else would the government set up a one-judge inquiry commission to look at Vadra’s land deals in Haryana when the quickest way to conclude a case is to file a criminal complaint, and conduct an investigation and trial. The BJP is in government at the Centre and in Haryana, and is privy to all records of Vadra’s land deals with the state government and others. The one-judge inquiry will most likely drag on for some time and may deliver some findings, or an indictment, to suit the BJP before the next big elections.
Are you surprised that Vadra’s alleged connection with arms dealer Sanjay Bhandari, which has been splashed all over the media, is yet to be followed up by a formal case being registered against the infamous son-in-law? Forget registering a case, there has been no notice to Vadra nor has he been questioned in regard to his alleged emails to Bhandari’s aide asking about the interior decoration of some house in London. The idea is to make him more and more infamous — as the face of benami, of Lutyens’ dark underbelly, and transfer some of this notoriety to the family and the party.
The only problem is the ecosystem of Lutyens’ dark underbelly – it is also full of agents who form the BJP’s support system in Delhi.
Of course, the Gandhi family has only itself to blame for this state of affairs. Even an amateur in politics would tell you that getting into the business of real estate is fraught with risks, especially if you belong to a leading political family that has been at the helm of affairs in India for decades. At a fundamental level, the National Herald case is also generating controversy because it has to do with premium real estate, the value of which has grown multi-fold in post liberalisation India. The historical costs of these properties were next to nothing. Everyone knows the real estate cannot be sold and the directors/trustees cannot be paid any remuneration, but the fact that Sonia and Rahul each hold a 35% share of the property has been seized upon by detractors to claim they have paid themselves so much. In today’s polarised political climate, the Gandhis could have avoided that. There is also something called a ‘perception battle’. The potential for controversy would have been far less if the new entity created to hold the real estate assets of the National Herald Trust had some 50 shareholders, including Sonia and Rahul, with each member holding a 2% share. That may have also signalled a new democratic culture to boot. The structuring of National Herald could have been like a “bee hive,” a metaphor once used by Rahul to describe the sharing of resources and responsibility.
The Gandhis may have become complacent and allowed Modi so many openings because they had earlier dealt with Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The Gandhis seemed to have had an implicit understanding with Vajpayee that family members would not be dragged into the game of political mudslinging. But Modi is a different kettle of fish, as the Gandhis are now realising.
From Mamata to Big B
Modi is extremely clever in the way he is using the instruments of investigation and law against political opponents. He is merely attempting to sully the names of his political opponents but is not decisively moving against them. What Modi is seeking is a kind of political submission from his rivals and he cleverly uses various instrumentalities of the state to achieve this. The Congress also used this technique in the past against the Mayawatis and Mulayams. But the difference is Modi and Shah seem to be at it 24/7, and quite relentlessly. Remember how the CBI became hyperactive against Mamata Banerjee and Naveen Patnaik in connection with “illegal chit funds” within six months of the NDA coming to power. In recent times, cases have been launched against several Congress chief ministers. Following the raid on Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s office, the CBI has issued over 100 summons to various officials, which Kejriwal has described as a “witch hunt”. Of course, by now all political opponents of the BJP have figured their game and therefore there is a complete lack of trust between them and the ruling party. In a way, Modi and Shah may have overplayed their card. After all, at some point you also need the cooperation of opposition leaders to help in overall governance, whether in legislature or executive. The public perception is that the NDA is being selective in targeting the corruption of political opponents and businesses.
This perception was reinforced when Amitabh Bachchan was invited to the event at India Gate commemorating two years of the Modi government. This surprised many as the government is probing Bachchan’s alleged Panama accounts, which were opened long before the central bank allowed such a facility to Indians. BJP spokespersons were seen on TV channels making bogus arguments that Bachchan had not yet been chargesheeted so it was alright for the Bollywood star to endorse the Modi government. What sort of signal are you sending to the investigating agencies?
Of course, the NDA won’t apply the same standard to many others. The selective nature of pursuing corruption cases is also seen in the way Chagan Bhujbal was booked for corruption and Ajit Pawar has not been pursued at all. Remember, the BJP had promised to investigate the “irrigation scam” under the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) government in Maharashtra. But it now needs the NCP to survive in the state as its ally Shiv Sena is playing fast and loose.
The art of blowing hot and cold with opposition leaders based on their current usefulness is being perfected by Modi and Shah. The most glaring example of this, of course, is the way the BJP is targeting the Gandhi family. The fact that the government decided not to directly file a case of corruption against Vadra surprised many admirers of Modi, particularly because the party’s 2014 election campaign against Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law was quite shrill. Eminent criminal lawyer Nitya Ramakrishnan says, “An FIR is the first and only option if there is a criminal case of corruption. A commission of inquiry is really meant for matters affecting the public at large, or it may be a fact finding commission if the issue is not very clear”. Going by this explanation, the Vadra case does not warrant the appointment of an inquiry commission – it is an individual act of buying and selling real estate with the alleged connivance of the authorities and this has no implications for the public at large.
Ramakrishnan further says, “A criminal prosecution has relentless logic. By contrast, a commission of inquiry can easily be an executive ploy to pussyfoot around facts, keep things on the boil without facing the consequences of an open criminal trial.” Going by this argument, can it be concluded that the NDA was never really interested in taking Vadra through a speedy trial? Modi and Shah appear to have taken a political rather than legal option in the Vadra case. It remains to be seen how this strategy plays out in the future.