NEWS ANALYSIS It is becoming increasingly difficult for Congress to ignore the activist-turned-politician Arvind Kejriwal's campaign entirely, given that he has begun to target individuals
The Congress’ official strategy to deal with the frequent slings and arrows hurled at the party by activist-turned-politician Arvind Kejriwal is to pretend that he does not exist. But, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the party to ignore the former income tax officer’s campaign entirely, given that he has begun to target individuals. As a result, the Congress has been alternating between enigmatic silences and sometimes, ill-considered responses.
For the movement led by Mr. Kejriwal’s faction, corruption remains the key issue a month after India Against Corruption split, but its tone is far more strident than the one its parent body had adopted. Two years ago, when Anna Hazare and IAC first hit the streets, the demand was for an effective Lokpal Bill. The UPA government, breaking convention, even included the IAC members in the initial rounds of discussions — a move that many in the Congress criticised as conceding too much. As the anti-graft crusade gathered momentum, at one stage Mr. Hazare accused 15 Ministers in the government of being corrupt.
But only after the IAC split last month did Mr. Kejriwal begin to name individuals and present documents to “prove” their involvement in acts of corruption. Of those targeted so far, only BJP president Nitin Gadkari is an opposition leader. The four others are firmly in the UPA camp — Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra, Union Law Minister Salman Khurshid and his wife Louise Khurshid, former Maharashtra deputy Chief Minister and Nationalist Congress Party leader Ajit Pawar and Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit — even though Mr. Kejriwal says he is non-partisan.
How has the Congress responded? The Khurshids have filed defamation suits against the India Today group which broadcast allegations against their NGO, and which Mr. Kejriwal subsequently took up. And on Monday, Ms. Dikshit’s secretary demanded that Mr. Kejriwal take back his comment about the Chief Minister (he alleged that she is a dalal for profit-making electricity companies) in two days, or face legal action.
Mr. Vadra on the other hand has remained silent, barring the one comment about the plight of “mango people in a banana republic” on his now defunct Facebook page. Immediately after Mr. Kejriwal’s press conference on October 5, where the charges against Mr. Vadra were levelled, the Congress’ first instinct was to say he was a private individual with a right to run a business, but that if he had done anything illegal, the law would deal with him. But later that evening there was a full-throated defence by a battery of ministers and party spokespersons. Then, on October 9, when Mr. Kejriwal called a second press conference on the same subject, the vitriol left the party so shocked, that it left Mr. Vadra’s defence to the Haryana government and real estate giant DLF.
On October 18, Congress media chairperson Janardan Dwivedi, in his characteristic oblique fashion, laid down the party line. Adopting a high moral tone, he said the Congress didn’t subscribe to the sort of personal attacks being levelled by certain organisations. History, he said, had demonstrated that those who made personal allegations to get ahead were doomed to be destroyed politically. “Those whose birth takes place in the midst of falsehoods,” he said darkly, “often end in crime.”
But with Mr. Kejriwal’s very effective shoot-and-scoot tactics, the ripostes of senior party leaders — from party general secretary Digvijay Singh to Mr. Khurshid — have not always occupied that high moral ground. Mr. Khurshid was heard on television channels saying that though Mr. Kejriwal could visit his constituency, Farrukhabad, he might experience some difficulty in leaving the area. To those who watched the clip the Law Minister seemed to be at its theatrical best, but in cold print it sounded like a threat. On Monday, Mr. Khurshid “clarified” that he had meant the people of Farrukhabad would themselves respond to the allegations. But he couldn’t resist describing Mr. Kejriwal as an ant trying to take on an elephant (the Congress). Mr. Singh, on his part, has called the former income tax officer “a self-serving megalomaniac” and raised questions about the foreign funds flowing into his NGO.
The Congress’ line on Mr. Gadkari has also been confusing. While Mr. Singh has said there was enough evidence against Mr. Gadkari’s company to merit an investigation by the serious fraud investigation office of the Corporate Affairs Ministry, Congress spokesperson Sandeep Dikshit’s response on Monday was comparatively muted. Asked about the allegations against the BJP president, Mr. Dikshit said that since all the information was in the public domain, it was for the investigating agencies, SEBI and the Finance Ministry — if they felt there was enough evidence — to take cognisance. He, however, stressed that it was not right to probe too much into the personal lives of those in politics.
So, even as Mr. Kejriwal faces questions on the funding of his outfit, and the direction of his movement by IAC members, the ‘elephantine’ Congress is yet to come to grips with how to deal with the ant.