Political spin-off

Feet of clay

Print edition : March 16, 2018

Narendra Modi, then Gujarat Chief Minister, being weighed against silver during the inauguration of the Diamond Hall at the Mumbai Diamond Merchants Association in Mumbai, a September 2013 picture. Photo: PTI

Amit Shah, BJP national president, speaking during Navashakthi Samavesha at B.C. Road near Mangaluru, Karnataka, on February 20. Photo: H.S. MANJUNATH

A Youth Congress protest rally against the Punjab National Bank scam at a PNB branch in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, on February 16. Photo: A.M. Faruqui

The aura of incorruptibility assiduously built around the Narendra Modi government is getting tarnished by the allegations of political linkages to the scams involving Punjab National Bank and the Rafale aircraft deal.

Right through the first week of the 2018 Budget session of Parliament, the central focus of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) political thrusts was on reviving the debate on the corruption cases that rocked the Congress regimes of the past. There were offensives both within Parliament and outside, especially in campaigns in election-bound States, including Karnataka and Meghalaya. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself led these attempts to revive this political theme that has helped the BJP and its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) make huge electoral gains several times since 2014, with party president Amit Shah and Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley playing supporting roles. The Prime Minister’s performance was through back-to-back aggressive speeches in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha in response to the motion of thanks to the President’s address. In both the speeches, the theme was essentially how the serial scams in the Congress regimes, such as the Bofors and chopper scams, had stalled the country’s progress and how his own government was trying to overcome these setbacks by advancing the concept of a “New India” founded upon the “corruption-free four years of the Modi government”.

Shah spoke around the same theme in campaign meetings in Karnataka and Meghalaya. The general perception within the BJP and other Sangh Parivar organisations was that though this revival of the Congress corruption debate had the makings of a frenzied defence, it had built up conditions that could help stave off, at least in limited ways, the widespread criticism on the Modi government’s failures in addressing the rampant agrarian crisis and continuing economic slide.

And then the Nirav Modi-Punjab National Bank (PNB) scam expose happened. The brazenness with which the huge scam was perpetrated left people flabbergasted and knocked the bottom out of the “frenzied revival of the Congress corruption debate”. “The spikes of what looked like a well-crafted political offensive have been stumped outright and that too in a matter of a few days,” was the refrain among a group of Sangh Parivar activists considered close to Union Ministers Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari about the political fallout of the Nirav Modi-PNB scam. Some of them went on to add that along with the suspicions that have come up on the Rafale deal—especially on account of the manner in which Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman refused to divulge even the basic details of the deal on the floor of Parliament—the Modi government’s image of incorruptibility that was being assiduously built up lay in a shambles. With this, they believed, the very credibility of the NDA government had taken a thorough beating.

In this context, one of Modi’s speeches during the run-up to 2014 elections in which he described himself as a potential “Prime Watchman” ( chowkidhar) and not Prime Minister has started doing the rounds. In the speech, Modi repeatedly asserted that he would not allow the flight of people’s money into the pockets of private entities through corruption and that this would be his primary task in power. “This very assurance has fallen flat and looks horribly hollow. The accusations about Modi being more of a rhetorical demagogue than real doer have acquired new teeth against the background of the renewed propagation of this speech,” said a BJP leader close to Rajnath Singh. Incidentally, the chowkidhar speech has gone viral on social media.

Some Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) activists based in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi pointed out to Frontline that what aggravated this credibility fall were the additional difficulties that had been heaped on the banking operations of common people by the so-called restructuring advanced by the Modi government over the past two years, particularly in the post-demonetisation, post-Goods and Services Tax period. Anybody who has ever taken a loan of even a few thousand rupees from a public sector bank knows how cumbersome the process is, the number of verifications required, the documentation to be completed, and the harassment in case of even a single default on repayment.

In this scenario, the question is, How is it possible for someone to swindle thousands of crores from banks over seven years and that too through multiple transactions across countries without anyone knowing? Especially in the age of core banking, where each and every single transaction is tracked through a chain of digital verification processes! Even a layman knows that banks have regular internal and external audits and that the Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) approval and monitoring is mandatory in transactions that involve foreign exchange. So if, as Arun Jaitley says, the PNB scam was a result of oversight by the auditors, how is it possible that nobody in the bank, from the level of branch manager to the CEO, ever noticed any irregularity? The most obvious inference that can be drawn in the given circumstances is that this oversight was deliberate. The RSS activists were of the view that this very context of the layman’s troubles in banking was what had made the collapse of the halo of incorruptibility even more palpable.

Congress’ offensive

Congress spokesman Shakeel Ahmad elaborated the context by pointing out that there was already a whiff of corruption charges against the government through manifestations such as the Sahara and Birla diaries. “Modi was personally implicated in this, it is on record, but the Supreme Court thought more evidence was required to proceed in the matter and the case ended there. Now, definite evidence of corruption is coming out in the open,” Shakeel Ahmad pointed out.

The Rafale deal, he said, was yet another example. “The decision to buy 126 Rafale aircraft from France was taken during the UPA [United Progressive Alliance] government itself. The deal then involved technology transfer, and the cost would have been Rs.526 crore a plane. Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd [HAL] had been chosen as the technology partner. But before the deal could be finalised, the government changed and the deal got stuck midway. After becoming Prime Minister, when Modi visited France, he announced a new deal for the purchase of just 36 Rafale planes at the cost of Rs.1,190 crore a plane. Significantly, the Prime Minister announced the deal even though the clearance from the Cabinet Committee on Security was yet to come. Though none of the pricing details or details about the Indian partner is officially available, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman refused to give details in Parliament citing national security as a reason. It is understood, the deal caused a loss of Rs.58,000 crore to HAL. But there are even doubts whether the Defence Ministry was also in the loop when the deal was finalised, seemingly in great haste,” Shakeel Ahmad pointed out.

An important point that has come up in connection with the political debates on Rafale is that there has been no technology transfer, and HAL was replaced with Reliance Defence, a company incorporated merely a week before the deal, as the Indian partner. The fact that HAL has over 40 years of experience in manufacturing defence equipment while nothing is known about the expertise of Reliance Defence in manufacturing defence equipment has also been repeatedly cited in these discussions.

Similarly, in the PNB scam, the lack of transparency on the part of the government and officialdom has given rise to suspicions about the people involved because it is inconceivable that a scam of this dimension could have taken place without the higher-ups deliberately turning a blind eye to it. “It is naive to say that the branch manager or the clerks could have done something of this proportion on their own. Unfortunately, they will now be made scapegoats. The inbuilt safety mechanisms in banking operations, especially those involving foreign exchange, are too strong to be bypassed unless, of course, there is pressure from above,” said a senior PNB official, adding to the perceptions on potential political linkages to the scam.

Both the Congress and other opposition parties have been repeatedly highlighting the presence of Nirav Modi in the business delegation accompanying the Prime Minister to the World Economic Forum meeting at Davos in Switzerland, which was just a week before the matter was reported to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Again, it has been stressed that it could not have been an oversight by the agencies because there are thorough background checks on all those who accompany the Prime Minister on his foreign tours.

Senior bank officials point out that a minimum of three months is required in procedural formalities before a matter can be reported to the CBI because this involves taking approval from the bank’s board, which has representatives both from the Ministry of Finance and the RBI. By this logic, the bank was already in the process of handing over the case to the CBI, and this was known to Finance Ministry and RBI officials when Nirav Modi accompanied the Prime Minister to Davos.

The obvious and not-so-obvious linkages of these two scams directly to the Prime Minister are getting underscored repeatedly, and according to the BJP-Sangh Parivar activists considered close to Rajnath Singh and Gadkari, this has started working on the ground for the opposition, especially the Congress. Congress president Rahul Gandhi has been quick to capitalise on this growing perception. Addressing an election rally in Meghalaya, which goes to the polls on February 27, he said: “Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a great magician. He has made many things appear and disappear effortlessly. Scamsters like Vijay Mallya, Lalit Modi and Nirav Modi magically disappeared from India and reappeared in foreign lands out of the reach of Indian law. Modi ji’s magic can even make democracy disappear from India very soon.”

Rahul Gandhi added that the recent scandals were proof that “this is a government that not only cannot remove corruption but is actively participating in it”. His frontal political attacks on the ground have been supplemented well by the Congress’ social media machinery. For example, replying to the Prime Minister’s tweet asking for ideas for his weekly radio programme “Mann Ki Baat”, Rahul Gandhi tweeted that he should talk about the Nirav Modi and Rafale scams amounting to Rs.22,000 crore and Rs.58,000 crore respectively. In another of his tweets, he took a jibe at the Prime Minister by saying that on another of Modi’s many foreign trips he should bring the “other Modi back”.

Experts have observed a spurt in Rahul Gandhi’s activity on social media and have noticed an increase in his following. Shakeel Ahmad confirmed that Rahul Gandhi has 5.8 million followers on Twitter now, double the number from six months ago. The perception among experts is that Rahul Gandhi’s social media profile has changed for the better now and there are fewer trolls about him and that there are more positive comments on his speeches. The Sangh Parivar activists considered close to Rajnath Singh and Gadkari were also in agreement with this and admitted that this could well lead to an expansion of the opposition space at the level of the larger national polity.

Leaders in other constituents of the NDA, such as the Janata Dal (United), are of the same view. “The Rajasthan byelection results, where the BJP was routed, came before these exposes. The exposes have certainly brought down the BJP and NDA’s acceptability. Clearly, these could be pointers to a larger trend,” said a senior JD(U) leader to Frontline. Shakeel Ahmad, too, looks at this as part of a larger trend and says that there is optimism in the Congress about benefiting automatically from Modi’s decline. “The BJP’s popularity had reached its peak in 2014 and it can only come down from there. The BJP won all 25 seats in Rajasthan, all 26 seats in Gujarat, 25 out of 27 seats in Madhya Pradesh, 73 out of 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh, 33 out of 40 seats in Bihar, 42 out of 48 seats in Maharashtra, and all five seats in Uttarakhand. It has already reached its maximum, now it will have to come down and we will be the beneficiary of that,” said Shakeel Ahmad.

The political observer and Swaraj India leader Yogendra Yadav is also of the opinion that the PNB scam has unleashed a wave of popular anger because this is something to which the common man can relate. “Rafale, which is a huge scam too, is much too distant for people to relate to. The PNB swindle is much closer and relatable. The exposure of the loot has taken the sheen away from Modi’s personal image. The government tried hard to distance itself from the scam, but it has obviously failed because people know how banks work in India and they find it technically hard to believe that a scam of this scale could have happened without the big bosses’ consent,” he said, adding that the Congress could emerge as a political beneficiary of this situation only if the grand old party’s leadership had the imagination to build on this, and that process should include building on its own credibility. “That requires innovativeness and political creativity, which is still not in evidence. But these are early days yet. All I would say at the moment is that the ingredients for cooking a great dish are ready; let’s see who uses them the best,” Yogendra Yadav told Frontline.

There is a stream of opinion among NDA constituents such as the JD(U) and the Telugu Desam Party that the current situation could change the state of play within the BJP too and that the absolute hegemony of Modi and Shah could face some challenges, even from some sections of the top brass of the RSS. Former Rajya Sabha member and Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Shivanand Tiwari summed up this context as follows:

“Throughout its three and a half years, this regime and its political machinery have consistently sought to cover up their administrative and governance deficiencies by making authoritarian and fascist manoeuvres in various forms. It has taken the communal path through killings on beef controversy, assaults on minorities in the name of ghar wapsi and love jehad, blatant saffronist takeover of institutions, and outright suppression of voices of dissent in social, literary and cultural spaces. This massive cover-up was facilitated by the so-called incorruptibility of the Prime Minister and his government. The significant setbacks caused by the current climate to this image could well strike decisive blows against the cover-up of huge proportions. That could manifest as internal dissidence and revolt too.” Tiwari’s observations have much resonance across the political spectrum in the national capital.