OPINION

Halo lost in the acche din

Pavan K. Varma

Pavan K. Varma  

Constant allegations of corruption or impropriety have become the raucous template of India’s political life. On many occasions these are not tenable or verified, and are hurled around only for transient political mileage. At other times, they are both serious and substantive, and need to be dealt with in accordance with the law and the democratic conventions that must guide public life.

The current maelstrom of both financial wrongdoing and constitutional impropriety that has hit the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) needs to be seen objectively, without hysteria and the shrill tone of televised debates. Such a calm approach is not what the BJP should expect from its opponents. During the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) rule, the BJP was nothing short of obstreperous in pursuing its campaign against public immorality. Entire sessions of Parliament were stalled as it took its protest both to the streets and to the highest temple of democracy. Ms. Sushma Swaraj, then Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, had said that “not allowing Parliament to function is also a form of democracy, like any other form”.

Mr. Arun Jaitley, her counterpart in the Rajya Sabha, and now the Union Finance Minister in this government, had in an interview in August 2012, justified the disruption of Parliament. The problem in democracy is that what you say in one context comes back to haunt you in another. Now, the BJP is at the receiving end, and it can hardly expect the Opposition to be particularly decorous, restrained or forgiving.

A ‘humanitarian gesture’

Even so, the facts of the case regarding Ms. Swaraj and the Rajasthan Chief Minister, Vasundhara Raje, must be evaluated objectively. I have the highest personal regard for Sushma ji . She is an exceptionally competent Minister, and a person of principle and integrity. What made her then seek to help Lalit Modi’s request for travel documents without consulting either her own Ministry, or the Finance Ministry, or our High Commission in London? After all, the allegations against Lalit Modi were not of an insignificant nature. He was accused of violations against both the Foreign Exchange Management Act and Prevention of Money Laundering Act. His passport stood revoked since March, 2011. The Enforcement Directorate has sent not one but as many as 15-16 show cause notices to him. And, Mr. P. Chidambaram, the former Union Finance Minister in the UPA, had, as per his own admission, written to his counterpart in the United Kingdom to send him back to India to face charges. True, Mr. Modi’s request was in the context of the need for him to travel to Portugal to be with his wife being operated for cancer. It is also true that there was a personal friendship between Mr. Lalit Modi and Ms. Swaraj, and that her husband, Swaraj Kaushal, and daughter, were part of Mr. Modi’s legal team. The jury is out on whether such a friendship necessarily constitutes conflict of interest. But, certainly, it does not provide sufficient ground for her to dub her impulsive action as a “humanitarian” gesture. The External Affairs Minister of a country is not allowed such “humanitarian” luxuries; nor do personal friendships matter when you have to take decisions as part of the government of which you are a cabinet minister. Governments are a continuum, and if a new party comes to power, it must take cognisance of actions taken by its predecessor. Therefore, her decision to act unilaterally, without consulting her own government, and, in particular the Finance Minister, may not have been mala fide but it was certainly inappropriate.

Line of personal friendships

In the case of Ms. Raje, the issues become more complex and even more serious. What is really inexcusable is that she decided to sign a statement of support for Mr. Modi’s continued stay in the U.K., with the express condition that her action should not come to the notice of her own government. At the time when she did this, she held a Constitutional position as Leader of the Opposition in Rajasthan, and had entered the Assembly with an oath to serve the Constitution.

Moreover, there is increasing evidence that her action may have been influenced by what appears to be rather dubious monetary investments worth several crores made by Mr. Modi in her son’s company, and that she herself could have been the beneficiary of such investments. Unfortunately, her case too shows clearly that personal friendships got the better of both morality and legality.

Probity and foreign practices

Just as a matter of perspective, it could be instructive to try and envisage what would happen in similar matters in other responsible democracies. Suppose, for a moment, that in the U.K., the foreign minister, and another politician of near equal importance, had intervened directly with India, behind the back of their own government, to assist a person sought by their country for allegedly serious economic offences, and proof of their clandestine intervention along with evidence of conflict of interest and dubious financial transactions became public, would they be allowed to continue in office? The answer, most certainly, is a categorical “no”, and, in all probability they would resign themselves, as several of them have indeed done in the past for far less aberrations. Much of our parliamentary system is modelled on the British model. If we can borrow the hardware of our democracy from our former colonisers, why can’t we emulate their practices as far as public probity is concerned?

The BJP’s attempt to brazen out these charges is not going to be easy. First, to do so would be diametrically opposite to the high moral ground Mr. Narendra Modi took while campaigning for the last Lok Sabha election. At that time, with the scams in the UPA II government as his target, all his speeches were full of the promise of providing a clean and transparent dispensation. “ Na khaoonga, na khane doonga [I will not take bribes, nor will I allow anybody to do so”] was his high minded assurance to the people of India who, trusting him, gave his party an absolute majority. Now, if he reneges on that promise, his personal credibility and the entire moral edifice of his campaign and one-year-old government will collapse.

Second, it is unlikely that the political opposition will let him off the hook so easily. If no action is forthcoming against the erring Ministers, the monsoon session of Parliament promises to be a washout. A thorough investigation is in order, and a Special Investigation Team (SIT) under a judge of the Supreme Court needs to probe the entire matter.

In the interim, the most dignified thing would be for both Ms. Swaraj and Ms. Raje to voluntarily resign. Their mentor, and the seniormost leader of the BJP, L.K. Advani, has hinted that this would be the best thing for them to do, citing his own immediate decision to resign when the Hawala scam broke. The BJP leadership should remember too, that Congress leaders like Law Minister Ashwani Kumar and Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal had been forced to resign under Opposition pressure on the basis of “public probity” even when no charges had been proved against them.

Rumblings within

Third, Ms. Swaraj and Ms. Raje are not the only problems the BJP is facing. In Madhya Pradesh, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan is increasingly facing the heat in the Vyapam recruitment scam. In Maharashtra, Women and Child Welfare Minister Pankaja Munde’s purchase order for Rs.206 crore in a single day in February this year through 24 government resolutions without inviting tenders has raised serious questions of financial propriety. In Delhi, Union Minister for Human Resource Development Smriti Irani’s several versions of her educational qualifications in her sworn affidavit to the Election Commission, has been taken cognisance by a court of law. Mr. Kirti Azad, a senior BJP MP has, meanwhile, in June 2015, requested the Delhi police to file an FIR against Mr. Jaitley for alleged wrongdoings in the Delhi and District Cricket Association (DDCA). Indeed, affairs in the party are also far from happy. Mr. Advani has also spoken about the possibility of an Emergency being imposed again. Another senior party leader, Mr. Yashwant Sinha, has openly castigated the party leadership for considering anyone over the age of 75 to be brain-dead! Other influential MPs like Mr. R.K. Singh from Bihar have surprisingly broken ranks and struck a discordant note over Ms. Swaraj and Ms. Raje extending help to Mr. Lalit Modi. In several States, the BJP’s political barometer is far from being sanguine. The drubbing it received in the Delhi Assembly elections, so soon after its massive victory in the Lok Sabha election, is still fresh. In Jammu and Kashmir, the alliance with the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party is in danger of running aground on its own contradictions. And, in Bihar, there is visible confusion as an entire host of putative BJP leaders pull each other down in the race for who would be the BJP chief ministerial candidate in the forthcoming State elections.

In all of this, the silence of the Prime Minister is deafening. For a man who is known to tweet on the most inconsequential things, his stoic refusal to comment on the goings-on in his own party, is most revealing. In no other ethically functioning democracy would the head of the government keep silent on such matters. Tactics, strategy and expediency cannot become a substitute for public accountability. It appears that our Prime Minister’s acclaimed eloquence was much more in evidence when he was making the promise of acche din , but now that the dream has begun to go sour, he has somehow lost his voice.

(Pavan K. Varma, an author-diplomat, is a Rajya Sabha MP representing the Janata Dal (United).)

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