Till the quicksand of indiscretions enveloped Sushma Swaraj and Vasundhara Raje, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had the advantage over its principal rival, the Congress, of not being the victim of any major scandal.
Hence, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had the chutzpah of telling an audience abroad that while he was associating India with “skill”, the previous government had shamed the country with the appellation of “scam India”. Only a few months after this display of effrontery which ignored the tradition of not raising domestic issues on foreign soil, the Modi government has had its comeuppance.
Instead of focussing on ways to emerge from the “prudent gradualism”, in economist Jagdish Bhagwati’s words, of the reforms, which the government’s critics interpret as a dragging of the feet, the prime minister and his government are immersed in an episode which, according to the Congress, is marked by “nepotism, abuse of authority and violation of procedure”.
Notwithstanding the attempts to emphasize the Good Samaritan aspect of the external affairs minister’s intervention on behalf of the former Indian Premium League (IPL) administrator, Lalit Modi’s ailing wife, the fact that Lalit Modi is a fugitive from Indian justice has undermined Sushma Swaraj’s acts of “good intentions”, as finance minister Arun Jaitley has said.
To make matters worse for the BJP, Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje has joined Sushma Swaraj in demonstrating her proximity to Lalit Modi. Their explanation for their camaraderie is that Modi is a family friend. But the acts of hobnobbing recall the adage that a person is known by the company he or she keeps.
Interestingly, the BJP is seemingly keener on standing by the external affairs minister than the chief minister, who has apparently been left to fend for herself over an allegation that she endorsed Lalit Modi’s application for immigration to Britain on the condition that the Indian authorities should not know about it.
Although the document bears no signature, the chief minister and her party will have considerable difficulty in wriggling out of this instance of playing hide and seek. Further complications have been caused by the charge of dubious business links between Lalit Modi and Raje’s son, Dushyant, which has made the BJP’s critics dub Dushayant as its Robert Vadra, the controversial son-in-law of Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
Scams are not only about thieving as the scandals involving the 2G telecom spectrum, the allocation of mining blocks for coal and others during Manmohan Singh’s tenure suggest. They can also damage a party by showcasing the subterranean links between powerful ministers and sleaze operators.
Considering that Narendra Modi had once taunted Congress leader Shashi Tharoor for having a Rs.50 crore girl friend because of Sunanda Pushkar’s IPL deals, the reports about how prominent BJP leaders have gone out of their way to help the tainted former IPL czar cannot but be an embarrassment for the prime minister.
The BJP rode to power not only on the basis of promising economic growth but also by stressing its commitment to a clean public life.
Now, both the pledges have failed to materialize. Unless Narendra Modi demonstrates his fabled capacity to act decisively, the daily unfolding of the bonhomie between ministers and a person under the scanner of the Enforcement Directorate will only provide more juicy grist to the Congress’s mill.
Taken together with the disquiet among farmers about the proposed amendments of the land acquisition law, and among ex-servicemen over the delay in implementing the one-rank, one-pension rule, the Sushma Swaraj-Vasundhara Raje-Lalit Modi saga can have damaging consequences for the BJP on two fronts.
First, the inevitable stalling of parliament on the issue will be a further setback to the prime minister’s reforms agenda. Secondly, the BJP will not find it easy to launch an effective election campaign in Bihar when its hands are not clean and when it faces various disaffected groups.
Moreover, in view of the attacks from multiple fronts, the BJP seems to have lost some of its fighting instincts. Otherwise, it is not clear why it backed off from attacking the Congress on the affairs of Ottavio Quattrocchi and Warren Anderson after a few initial forays.
Though several years old, these issues still have the potential to embarrass the Congress, and particularly the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. If the BJP has erred by befriending a virtual absconder, the Congress had committed a worse sin by allowing Quattrocchi, an Italian friend of the dynasty, and Anderson, the Union Carbide chief, escape from the country without facing the consequences of their offences in the Bofors howitzer deal and the world’s worst industrial disaster in Bhopal.
Instead of raising these issues, the BJP has chosen to opt for a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into a disproportionate assets case against the Congress’s chief minister in Himachal Pradesh, Virbhadra Singh, presumably to show that its rival is also not squeaky-clean.
The move will appear all the more to be a tit-for-tat exercise considering that the government has stopped the CBI for pursuing the inquiries into the Ishrat Jehan fake encounter case apparently in view of the likelihood that an investigation can turn the needle of suspicion towards senior BJP leaders.
For the BJP, the euphoria of May last year must now seem far away.