July 25, 2020
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Country-Made Howitzer

Another Bofors moment for the Congress? You could well say so.

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Country-Made Howitzer
Country-Made Howitzer

The key question in l’affaire Vadra is similar to the key question in l’affaire Bofors. “What services did A.E. Services provide for Ottavio Quattrocchi to swing the deal in favour of Bofors?” Chitra Subramaniam Duella, whose reports from Geneva in The Hindu had exposed the payment of kickbacks, had asked then. It’s a question she still asks. Reframing it for Congress chief Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra, whose alleged acquisitions through unsecured loans from realty giant DLF have been exposed by anti-corruption campaigner Arvind Kejriwal, she puts it thus: “What services has Vadra rendered to become a millionaire overnight?” As for the denials—from Vadra, DLF, many Union ministers and Congress functionaries—she says, “Then, as now, when denials are disproportionate to the allegations, they raise suspicion.”

There always have been whispers of what powered the rise and rise of Vadra, who is married to Sonia’s daughter Priyanka and is sometimes referred to as the country’s premier son-in-law, or, as in a recent SMS joke, the FDI—‘First Damaad (son-in-law) of India’. At times, there would be some talk in the newsrooms. Nothing solid came of that. But Kejriwal—stuck though he is in a plan for starting a new political party—came out with company names and figures, underlining his allegations with accounting skills acquired as a former IRS officer who served in the Income-Tax department.

Kejriwal and his comrade-in-arms, lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan, did away with the ‘courtesies’ political parties have often extended to each other when exposes of corruption happen. For instance, when questions were raised over Ranjan Bhattacharya, foster son-in-law of former PM Atal Behari Vajpayee, wielding influence at the PMO, the Congress maintained a studied silence. The whispers never went beyond political circles. “It may or may not be a Bofors moment, but a convention appears to have been shattered—the convention of silence,” says political commentator Yogendra Yadav, who has aligned himself with Kejriwal and Bhushan. “Once it has been shattered, it is difficult to repair.”

“There is a suspicion. Only a fact-finding team can determine whether DLF benefited from its ties with Vadra.” T.N. Chaturvedi, Former CAG of India   “The charges Vadra faces are serious. It’s unfortunate ministers are giving him a clean chit just like that.” Kamini Jaiswal, Senior SC advocate

“The situation is bigger, worse than Bofors. More than half the ministers in the ruling coalition are tainted.” Muqtar Abbas Naqvi, BJP leader   “This is no Bofors moment. Though they are trying hard, there’s nothing that will damage us.” Renuka Chaudhary, Congress spokesperson

“It’s worse and more complex than Bofors. That was one case, here the govt faces many corruption cases.” D. Raja, Senior CPI leader   “It would be proper if the Gandhis explain every little bit. We must have a probe and
remedial measures.” Saugata Roy, Trinamool Congress MP

“Bofors threw a popular leader like Rajiv Gandhi out. But the Congress has not learned anything, it seems.” Ravi Shankar Prasad, BJP leader   “This attack may well be the last straw for the Congress. Equations between party and
family may be hurt.” D.L. Sheth, Political analyst

  “A time-bound probe free from any pressure is called for. We’ve put forth our views at the right time.” Mohammed Salim, CPI(M)  

As is their wont, Congress biggies scrambled to clear the ‘family name’. Union finance minister P. Chidambaram said the allegations against Vadra are a private matter concerning private individuals and business entities. (But, in a side plot, Union law minister Salman Khursheed, who promised to lay down his life for the Congress president, found some NGOs he and his wife Louise Khursheed run exposed in a TV sting op.)

Kejriwal and his fellow-campaigners have also found themselves under attack. “They are daydreamers, these people spreading rumours in the media are with the right wing. They have no ideology. Their politics is based on demolition, destruction. If you have something against a private individual, go for the legal process,” says B.K. Hariprasad, Congress general secretary. The silence of another general secretary, Digvijay Singh, given his habit of jumping to the Gandhi family’s defence, has been intriguing. But Rajiv Shukla, another Gandhi family loyalist, has struck out by questioning Bhushan’s own land deal in Palanpur, Himachal Pradesh. The party spokesman, Rashid Alvi, could do no better in defence of Vadra than say that the charges were nothing new.

What could be new is the way in which the Congress—and of course, the Gandhis—will be affected by these allegations. “This attack may well be the last straw for the Congress. It’s worse than the Bofors moment, for equations between the party and the family may get affected,” says political scientist D.L. Sheth. “The Congress may even become a different party from what it is now.” There is tell-tale evidence of Sheth’s prediction. Senior Congress functionaries, who were falling over each other to denounce the allegations against Vadra and ascribe motives to Kejriwal and his group, are now grudgingly saying “it’s a private matter”. The implied message: the party and the Gandhis are two different things. Says a source in the Congress, “It’s for individuals to defend their own positions.” And concerning Shukla’s attack on the Bhushans, Congress general secretary Janardhan Dwivedi says, “If a minister (Shukla holds the parliamentary affairs portfolio) alleges this and has documents to show, he is free to do so.” This marks out how the party is pushing the ‘let individuals defend themselves’ line. Though the party puts on a brave public face, the mood within is despondent. As Sheth sees it, the short-term impact of the allegations may well be general elections before 2014; the long-term consequences could affect the umbilical cord that binds the party to the Gandhi family.

No gain, no pain Vadra, a fitness buff, works out at a gym. (Photograph by Rajwant Rawat)

The short-term political play-out has already begun with manoeuvres from the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). The NCP is asking its workers to gear up for early elections. The SP and the BSP, notorious fair-weather partners, are keeping the UPA guessing. The BSP was to make its position clear on October 10, but hedged its bets and continued to support the ruling coalition. Says BSP MP Seema Upadhyay, “Mudslinging is expected—but the Congress must come out in the open and explain everything to the common man, showing evidence. It will contribute positively to the credibility of the Congress.”

At the same time, there’s an underlying fear in all parties: who will be the next target of campaigners like Kejriwal? The BJP, despite being the main opposition, has demanded a probe but is not very vociferous. Speculation is rife that some of its senior members could end up facing similar allegations.

The Trinamool Congress, a former ally that tried to bring the UPA down on its knees, has made no official comment yet. Its chief, Mamata Banerjee, has shown much respect for the Gandhis and seems to be continuing to do so. Bhudeo Chowdhary of the JD(U) brought politeness to a new level with, “Allegations have been levelled against a person with close proximity to the top Congress leadership. The ruling party should clarify doubts and order a probe. This will help its credibility grow. If necessary, we will all unite and demand a probe.” Mohammed Salim, of the CPI(M), says, “We need a transparent, time-bound probe, free from any kind of pressure. As far as our silence is concerned on the matter, we have expressed our views at the right time and from the right platform. We won’t do anything extra for the media’s perception.”

So is this really another Bofors moment for the Congress? For people like Chitra, indeed it is. “Bofors was only Rs 64 crore—and we’ve been saying ‘Out, damned spot!’ for 25 years,” she says. “This will be a big one for the Congress to defend. Short of coming clean, nothing will work.”

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