India Against Corruption has broken the unwritten code that politicians will not target each other’s kin, and in doing so has taken over the role the traditional Opposition and media should be playing

The civil society formation, India Against Corruption, is a beast most find stunning and enthralling, yet few are able to define its precise nature. The confusion over IAC’s personality arises from the many simultaneous roles its activists have arrogated for themselves. They are India’s muckrakers, exposing the underbelly of its politics and ferociously working as a democracy watchdog, considered the defining features of the media. They have usurped the role of the Opposition parties, albeit outside Parliament, providing the government no quarter and demanding accountability for its action and inaction. In fact, over the past two years, they have become the Opposition, launching a popular movement, setting the country’s agenda, and dominating the national consciousness — all traditionally considered attributes of a party/coalition waiting to replace the one in power.

Some of their multiple roles are in conflict with each other. They are the Opposition, yet wish to have no truck with political parties classified under the same rubric. In firing salvos against Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Nitin Gadkari, they have simultaneously positioned themselves as both anti-ruling and anti-Opposition parties. They are now set to enter the electoral arena, believing they must acquire at least a modicum of power to curb its rampant misuse. Yet the wish to acquire power hasn’t deterred them from becoming the nation’s conscience-keepers, not just through rhetoric but through audacious exposés that reveal the unconscionable side of Indian politics and the weakening of many institutions.

Vadra and DLF

Take IAC’s sensational revelation about the business deals between Robert Vadra and real estate giant DLF. It was in March 2011 that The Economic Times featured a story on Vadra’s entry into the realty business, in a tone bordering on laudatory, yet revealing most of the aspects IAC’s Arvind Kejriwal disclosed earlier this month. For more than a year, the media ignored the story. They then blithely splashed Kejriwal’s charges in banner headlines, even as they desisted from providing the precise context of the deal, until first The Hindu and then Business Standard explained its intricacies. Did we journalists keep silent because of our fear of a possible blowback from the powerful? Or was our silence a consequence of our middle class prejudices which dissuaded us from railing against one of the Gandhis? Do we court silence over allegations of corruption against other politicians, say, Laloo Prasad Yadav, whose wealth was inquired into because of the lavish wedding he held for his daughter?

The media’s reluctance to investigate the Vadra-DLF deals prompted political scientist Yogendra Yadav, now a member of IAC, to write that the political class is shaken and stirred because Prashant Bhushan and Kejriwal have violated a “code of silence observed in Delhi’s corridors of power.” To bolster his argument, he added, “During Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s regime, everyone knew about (his foster son-in-law) Ranjan Bhattacharya’s role in the PMO, or the late Pramod Mahajan’s multifaceted adventures. Yet neither the media nor the then opposition spoke about it in public.”

Centaur hotels

Outlook magazine, where I worked from July 2000 to February 2012, did feature a story on the complicity between big business and Vajpayee’s Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), but was silenced through raids on its proprietor. In 2005, a year after the ouster of Vajpayee’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA) from power, journalist Rajesh Ramachandran worked over three months to establish a link between Bhattacharya and the companies to which two Centaur Hotels in Mumbai were sold. The story had been cleared as a cover, but a day before the magazine was to go to the press, it was summarily pulled out. The editor-in-chief displayed ample candour in disclosing to senior editors, of whom I was one, that the story had been withdrawn at the proprietor’s behest.

Ramachandran handed over the Outlook cover story to journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Prashant Bhushan and CPI (M) MP Dipankar Mukherjee, who as the chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Civil Aviation, under the jurisdiction of which Centaur Hotels fell, had then recommended a Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) inquiry into the Centaur Hotel deals. The details of the deals were disclosed by the trio at a press conference on July 27, 2005 in Delhi. You would have thought the ruling Congress party, perpetually sniping at the BJP, couldn’t possible forsake the opportunity to weaken its principal rival.

But the trio’s press conference didn’t set the Yamuna ablaze. The nation now knows why. Congress leader Digvijay Singh declared this week, “We don’t target people who are not in politics. This is ethics…For example, Ranjan Bhattacharya was not in politics but he was living with Vajpayee. Have we ever said a word about Ranjan?” When told the Congress perhaps didn’t have evidence against him, Singh replied, “Don’t ask me that, we have enough evidence…but we would not (raise it).”

The consensus among politicians not to target each other’s kith and kin is bewildering, particularly as families dominate our democracy and their progeny often deploy parental power to amass wealth. The political class has its own hierarchy, at the top of which are perched a clutch of families, protected from investigations by media barons, editors and even political rivals. This is precisely why the Opposition parties relinquished the chance of developing the details reported in The Economic Times to pillory the Congress in Parliament. It is into this vacuum that IAC has stepped, turning on its head what had been traditionally the process through which issues are brought into the public domain. Usually, the media unearths scams implicating the dispensation in power; political parties then raise them in Parliament, as also outside it, demanding probes. Precisely the opposite seems to be happening now — civil society activists raise issues of corruption and the media and political parties follow it. From initiating a movement to adopt a Jan Lokpal Bill, an issue pending for decades, to making a series of revelations implicating political bigwigs, IAC appears, as of now, to straddle the entire opposition space.

No wonder then, IAC has also become the nation’s conscience-keeper, a role normally performed by those outside the matrix of electoral politics. Like them, IAC activists seek to reform the nature of the political class and its ethos, in the process inventing a new political idiom. In a country witnessing an expansion of the urban middle class, to which most IAC activists belong, they seem to have opened an avenue for its most robust participation. They have, inadvertently or otherwise, discovered a new method of building a political party, the direction in which IAC is decisively headed. They are entering the electoral arena not through just rhetoric and promises but through political action that displays their intent and resolve to extricate India from the cesspool of corruption.

It is said the best advertisement for any publication is the story it publishes. You can now say that the best advertisement for an emerging party is to repeatedly expose, in the full glare of the media spotlight, the sheer hollowness of the existing political class.

(Ajaz Ashraf is a Delhi-based journalist. Email: ashrafajaz3@gmail.com)

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