The excuses the Congress and the BJP are making for the business dealings of Robert Vadra and Nitin Gadkari seem driven by a shared fear of Narendra Modi

Even before the brutal nature of the Stalinist regime was formally admitted by Nikita Khrushchev in 1956, many well-meaning socialists throughout the world were aware that what existed in the Soviet Union was a travesty. Yet, a great many of these idealists chose to look the other way in the belief that criticism would weaken the socialist state, encourage “counter-revolutionaries” and weaken the bigger fight against fascism and imperialism.

Having to choose between upholding what the British philosopher Roger Scruton termed “common decencies” and endorsing the lesser evil has confronted political activists for long. In the past year, this hoary debate has surfaced in India following a spate of corruption scandals that have seriously undermined the credibility of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance-2 government. Far from being celebrated as a mildly progressive dispensation concerned with nurturing socio-economic entitlements for the poor and the marginalised, the magnitude of corruption has created a widespread impression that the apparent concern for the aam aadmi is a cover for riotous crony capitalism.

Vadra and the Congress

Matters have come to a head following the flood of disclosures of the dodgy business practices of Robert Vadra, the son-in-law of Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Media reports indicate that Vadra leveraged his privileged relationship with the Gandhi family to circumvent rules and procedures and make a fast buck for both himself and DLF, one of India’s largest listed real estate companies. It is also alleged that Vadra cleverly anticipated crucial decisions by Congress-controlled governments in Haryana and Rajasthan to make windfall profits — what in common parlance is called insider trading.

The details of Vadra’s entrepreneurship are revealing for what they tell us about the realty business in India’s boom towns. Politically, however, the issue is far more consequential. For the first time since 1974 when the CPI(M) MP Jyotirmoy Basu infuriated Indira Gandhi by raising awkward questions about Sanjay Gandhi’s Maruti project in Haryana, the Gandhi family has been directly hit by a money scandal. Sonia Gandhi may have reportedly brushed away the allegations by asserting that Vadra is a “businessman” but that hasn’t insulated her from the charge that she did nothing to prevent her exalted family name to be used for disreputable advantage. Since the tone of a government is set by its leadership, the first family of the Congress may well be accused of embellishing the architecture of India’s all-pervasive crony capitalism.

Without doubt, the business ethics of Vadra, not to mention his sneering sense of entitlement, has created a large hole in the moral edifice of the Congress. This, in turn, is certain to shape popular perceptions in the run-up to the general election unless, of course, the UPA is spectacularly successful in shifting the attention of voters away from sleaze.

For the Congress, unflinching loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi family is an article of faith and, as such, it occasions little surprise that party leaders have fiercely protested Vadra’s innocence. For opinion-makers who are loosely supportive of Nehruvian values, the kerfuffle over corruption has raised awkward questions. While they are not inclined towards encouraging venality in public life, there is concern that the erosion of the Congress’ credibility will benefit the principal Opposition party. In particular they are petrified that the disgust over economic mismanagement and cronyism will trigger a fascination for Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, a leader who, at least BJP supporters believe, combines decisiveness with fierce personal integrity. Since, in liberal eyes, Modi personifies an “authoritarian” mindset, if not outright fascism, prudent politics demands that the fight against corruption — the proverbial lesser evil — be shelved till another day.

Gadkari and his defence

Paradoxically, this is a position that has cast a shadow over the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which, as the principal parliamentary Opposition, stands to gain most from the erosion in the Congress’ support. The plethora of questions over the seed capital of BJP president Nitin Gadkari’s business empire, and the lack of credible answers to these, have both embarrassed and outraged his party. Since the BJP doesn’t have dynastic pretensions and still sees itself as favouring “value-based politics,” there has been less inclination to rush to Gadkari’s defence with the same passion that the Congress demonstrated in the case of Vadra. Even those who have proffered the template defence of Gadkari having offered himself to an impartial inquiry can scarcely conceal their disquiet over the “immoral” equivalence being drawn between the BJP and the Congress. It is significant that apart from L.K. Advani and Sushma Swaraj, few of the BJP’s front-ranking leaders and no chief minister have spoken up for Gadkari.

Yet, the scepticism in the ranks over showcasing damaged goods hasn’t succeeded (so far) in removing Gadkari. On the contrary, emboldened by the bewildered ambivalence of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Advani’s mystifying distinction between business practices and public life, and Swaraj’s unequivocal support, Gadkari has taken recourse to brazenness — as was evident in his show of strength in Nagpur last Monday. To the outside world, Gadkari has successfully managed to convey the impression that, never mind the accompanying ridicule and potential loss of a political plank, the “parivar” and party are behind him. The BJP president has wilfully overstated the quantum of backing for himself. But he has been able to get away with this hype by craftily exploiting the prevailing uncertainty over what follows a possible resignation. Actually, it is more than uncertainty. There is considerable fear in a small but powerful section of the BJP that the failure of the Gadkari experiment will facilitate a hegemonic role for Modi — assuming he wins the Gujarat Assembly election conclusively. The Gujarat leader is unquestionably the man most BJP activists and BJP-inclined voters believe is best suited to both taking on the Congress and stealing the thunder of the anti-corruption crusaders. Whether unattached voters who are disgusted by the moral decline of the country also agree with this faith in his leadership is still untested. But what isn’t in any doubt is that Modi threatens the cosy somnolence of bipartisan deal-making involving the main political parties. For many in the BJP, Modi isn’t merely a challenge; he constitutes a threat.

There is an unholy convergence of interests between a Congress determined to put a lid on the corruption issue by simultaneously creating a hype over economic reforms and establishing moral equivalence between Vadra and Gadkari, and that section of the BJP which wants to deny Modi a national role. As of now, the battle lines are confined to the opinion-forming industry in which the intelligentsia and the middle classes play a disproportionate role. In the coming months, as the general election approaches, the issues are going to percolate the social ladder. Will the aam aadmi also choose to overlook corruption as something inherent in the Indian way? Alternatively, will there be an angry vote, perhaps even for a different way of doing politics? In that case, which is the lesser evil?

(Swapan Dasgupta is a political commentator.)

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