In the current scheme of things in the Bharatiya Janata Party, Shanta Kumar counts for very little. He may have been a powerful chief minister once, but is not part of any inner decision making circle of the party. Indeed, he has crossed into the 75-plus group, the superannuated “brain dead” category, as former Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha so eloquently described them.
So, a letter from the 80-year-old Kumar to party chief Amit Shah, saying that the Vyapam scam has made “all of us bow our heads in shame” will probably be seen as a minor, embarrassing blip, good for the media for a day or two before it disappears from the headlines. The party’s slick spokespersons will no doubt let it be known that in a democratic party like the BJP, all kinds of viewpoints are acceptable to encourage healthy discussion. In any case, the older guard, whether heavy weights like L.K. Advani and to a lesser extent Murli Manohar Joshi and one-time stalwarts like Shanta Kumar is of no consequence.
But the party will not find it so easy to wave away not just the Vyapam scam but the conflict of interest in the helpful attitude of Sushma Swaraj towards Lalit Modi, his investments in Vasundhra Raje’s son’s company and serious allegations of corruption in Maharashtra, which have roiled Devendra Fadnavis government.
The BJP strategy has been two fold: keep quiet till it goes away, possibly overtaken by other news development, and brazen it out and absolutely refuse to give in to opposition demands that Swaraj, Raje and MP Chief Minister Shivraj Chauhan resign.
Home Minister Rajnath Singh, now more and more the political manager of the government, put the party’s position succinctly: this was the NDA, not the UPA where mere allegations led to the resignations by ministers. This is a bit rich, since the BJP had gone on the warpath demanding that tainted ministers quit, but also must take into consideration that by the time the scandals broke – 2G, Coal auctions and even the IPL conflict of interest story that felled Shashi Tharoor – the UPA was into its second term, tired, demoralised and unable to withstand the steady barrage of pressure coming from government institutions such as CAG, the media, anti-corruption groups (Anna Hazare et al) and the BJP.
In the BJP’s case, the scams have broken out barely a year after the Modi government was sworn in on the platform of completely eliminating corruption and cronyism. Second, the party’ justifications in individual cases, such as the extraordinary help given by Sushama Swaraj to Lalit Modi, a man wanted in India by the Enforcement Directorate, which is being portrayed as a humanitarian gesture, don’t really wash. The BJP would have termed such help by a Congressman as nothing short of “national betrayal”. Nor is there any question that there is a huge stench about the Lalit Modi-Raje dealings and pretending to look the other way will not make it go away.
But it is the Vyapam scandal that really stands out. This is not the usual, garden variety scam—this is sinister in the extreme, with corpses littering the saga. Not just those who were somehow involved in this massive manipulation of the public examination system turn up dead, even those who ask questions mysteriously die. It was only after the journalist died that Chauhan, till the other day considered one of the better politicians in the party, finally stirred himself and ordered a CBI investigation. The party’s more experienced minds immediately realised what was at stake—not surprisingly Shanta Kumar has focused on Vyapam, because there is just no way to justify any of it.
By insisting that no one will quit, and further, that no wrong has been done in the Swaraj or the Raj cases, the party plans to stall any push from the opposition. The BJP’s think-tank may have concluded that giving in to the Congress and others would be a tactical error, since it would mean a victory for the opposition. All efforts have been made to show that the upper echelons of the BJP are as one and there is no intra-party conflict.
But this is an extremely shortsighted move. While this resistance will work in the immediate term, thus saving face, it is certainly going to have repercussions. The monsoon session, where the government hopes to get some business done, will probably be a washout. The spinmasters will try and put it out that both the GST Bill and the Land Bill were non-starters without a majority in the Upper House, but is this how the government wants to continue in the coming weeks and months?
The best thing would be to work out some kind of modus vivendi with the opposition to show that the government has taken all these allegations seriously and wants to address them. A statement from the highest quarters on those lines could make a big difference. If that is not coming, Swaraj’s position in Parliament is going to be hobbled sooner or later. Lalit Modi could well drop a new bomb which will spell trouble for the powerful Rajasthan chief minister. With the Bihar elections coming closer and closer, the party cannot afford to be distracted by these kinds of issues. When Shanta Kumar says “people are pointing fingers at us”, he is only warning the party about the consequences.