The morning Rajasthan was to go to the polls, a cartoon in the Times of India captured the manufactured fascination with Narendra Modi’s anti-corruption posturing: Rahul Gandhi has a nightmare in which a drowning Vasundhara Raje is thrown a lifeline by the prime minister from a helicopter, named Agusta.
A few days earlier. there was great excitement in our television studios about the extradition from the UAE, under dramatic circumstances, of the Agusta “middleman” Christian Michel; our anchor-warriors were unanimous in declaring it was a definite advantage to Narendra Modi and a potentially mortal blow to the Gandhis, who should now run for cover.
Predictably, Prime Minister Modi himself, with his practised malice, taunted the Congress, during an Rajasthan election rally, that the “raazdaar” (a man with secrets) had been ensnared; he implied a final nail was about to be hammered in the Gandhi family’s political coffin. Sober and sensible citizens wondered whether Michel was meant to be the kind of last minute sales pitch that worked so helpfully for the BJP in Gujarat.
And, a day before the assembly votes were to be counted, our studio bhakts got extra-excited over the Vijay Mallya extradition ruling by the British trial court; the ruling was immediately hashtagged as “ModigetsMallaya” and hailed as a ‘game-changer’. We were told confidently that the “chowkidar” had a new stride in his steps. This was a case of perfect jugalbandi between the ruling coterie and the presumed guardians of public interest, both pretending to be zealous anti-corruption crusaders for a clean polity.
Except that both were disconnected with the masses. Vasundhara Raje did not get saved. The BJP was voted out in Rajasthan – as also in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh – for its years of mis-governance, arrogance and petty corruption.
It is one of democracy’s many ironies that no ruling politician carries the credibility required to become the face of our national search for corruption-free public life. A halo was sought to be created around Narendra Modi, despite his close proximity to various Gujarat-based “entrepreneurs.” So successful was the selling of Modi as a chowkidar that it took a while for the voters to see through the fake platitudes and pieties. All said and done, the battle against corruption is a moral enterprise – an undertaking necessarily beyond the ken of politicians. Modi heads a political party that is vigorously and relentlessly engaged in the pursuit of power, with all its attendant benefits and advantages.
Elections are the wrong time to strike a moral posture. After all, electioneering does bring out the normal nature of political exchange; the voters in these three states could see for themselves the ruling politicians’ splurging. The BJP was outspending all its rivals combined, just as it has received maximum funds from the corporate sector (disguised as electoral bonds).
We know that in the past, whenever a practising politician has tried to don the anti-corruption mantle, ordinary citizens end up feeling deceived. V.P. Singh mesmerised for a while, but he too turned out to be just like any other expedient politician. Then P.V. Narasimha Rao’s managers declared him to be the cleanest man in public life, after the CBI was used to ensnare senior Congress leaders in the Hawala diary case; but voters were far from impressed and Rao’s Congress was voted out of power in 1996.
On the other hand, outsiders have had reasonable success leading anti-corruption crusades. Jaya Prakash Narain ,“JP,” had the moral aura to become the credible face of an anti-corruption movement; he was a freedom-fighter, an esteemed contemporary of Jawaharlal Nehru, with a reputation for political disinterestedness– and, that is why his voice against the corruption of the Indira Gandhi regime was heard with respect.
And a few years ago, Anna Hazare, with his white khadi kurta and dhoti and his Gandhi cap, made the perfect mascot for an “anti-corruption crusader” against the UPA II dispensation. Anna was also perfect for our television age. Assorted right-wing outfits provided the cadres, the corporates the finances, and civil society groups the passion and outrage. A perfect legitimacy crisis got brewed; the only beneficiary of that “andolan” against black money was Narendra Modi.
Four years is a long time in politics, especially in this age of information glut. Voters could see, feel and breathe rampant corruption, petty and huge, in the air. Election time promises, extravagantly made, simply could not be redeemed. On the contrary, the most tantalising promise – Rs 15 lakh in each pocket – was cynically dismissed as an ‘election time jumla’. Yet the Prime Minister kept on preening himself as an anti-corruption crusader; and, our TV studios became the echo chambers. But in real India, millions and millions of citizens heard stories of how in their neighbourhoods the rich and the powerful were able to use demonetisation for converting black money into legitimate bank accounts. Unfortunately, just as the disconnect between the prime minister and the citizens of India deepened, the anchors cheered him louder and louder.
Modi himself went around from one election rally to another, claiming how “a chaiwallah” had managed to put the “maa-beta” in the dock. The headlines in the Hindi newspapers made colourful reading. But, apparently, the voters were not buying the message. After four years, all this aggressive posturing has come to be seen as political vendetta.
Because the prime minister remains seduced by his own coarsened rhetoric against the Gandhis, the rest of the movers and shakers of the NDA arrangement too find themselves distracted from the business of good governance. Unusual and unfair demands have been made on the bureaucracy – especially the enforcement agencies – to tweak the rules and fudge the facts to satisfy the prime minister’s magnificent obsession. In pursuit of this deformed morality, the prime minister has lost the citizens’ trust. That loss will make itself felt in the next Lok Sabha round.