Political Impact

Silence of the crusaders

Print edition : January 19, 2018

Narendra Modi releasing the BJP manifesto in April 2014, ahead of the general election. Photo: RAVEENDRAN/AFP

Kapil Sibal, Senior Advocate and Congress leader. Photo: PTI

The verdict in the 2G spectrum case seems to have undermined the BJP’s propaganda blitz about corruption during the United Progressive Alliance regime.

IT WAS KAPIL SIBAL, SENIOR Congress leader with the record of having served as Union Minister of Telecommunications and of Law and Justice, who came up with the most objective assessment of the political dimensions of the December 21 verdict in the 2G spectrum allocation case. “With this judgment, the Congress may claim a moral victory but it cannot reclaim what it lost.” However, his other statements on the case, including his reiteration of his contention in 2011 that the scam caused “zero loss to the exchequer”, have been characterised as extreme and sensational and continue to be perceived even in Congress circles as being counterproductive. There is little doubt that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s virulent campaign on the perceived illegalities in the 2G spectrum allocation and the presumptive loss of Rs.1.76 lakh crore it was supposed to have caused to the exchequer was one of the main factors that led to a massive anti-incumbency mood against Manmohan Singh’s United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and its humiliating defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Even Narendra Modi’s elevation as Prime Minister-designate in the run-up to those elections had a direct relation to this campaign; he was more sharp-tongued and opprobrious than most other senior BJP leaders when it came to castigating the Congress leadership on issues, including the 2G case.

Indeed, the BJP campaign for the 2014 general election revolved around three Gs; “CWG, 2G, jijaji” (Hindi for elder sister’s husband, here referring to Robert Vadra, Rahul Gandhi’s brother-in-law). The reference was to the Commonwealth Games scam, the 2G scam and alleged land-grabbing by Robert Vadra in Haryana, respectively. The entire BJP leadership built up this campaign in an orchestrated manner through the last three years of the UPA II goverment, but it acquired new teeth and bite after Modi was anointed the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in September 2013. BJP insiders, including senior leaders, admit that it was Modi who took this campaign to such a crescendo that the entire nation saw nothing but truth in it. As a result, the UPA II government was viewed as the most corrupt government ever in independent India’s history and this contributed immensely to the BJP’s sweeping victory in May 2014.

Even after assuming power at the Centre in May 2014, the BJP and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by it continued to benefit from the popular perception of the Congress as a cobweb of corruption. This was reflected in the electoral setbacks that the Congress suffered over the past three and a half years, in one State after another. Modi also used this propaganda handle to attack the generally soft-spoken Manmohan Singh. From time to time, he described the former Prime Minister in terms such as “mauni baba” (silent old man) who just kept watching as corruption scams were mounting.

When Manmohan Singh made use of uncharacteristic words such as “organised loot” and “legalised plunder” to describe demonetisation in early 2017, Modi made disparaging innuendoes about his predecessor. He said: “For the past 30-35 years, Manmohan Singh ji has been directly associated with financial decisions. There were many scams around him, but his own image remained clean. Dr Sahab is the only person who knows the art of bathing in a bathroom with a raincoat on ( Bathroom mein raincoat pehenke nahana sirf doctor saab jaante hain).” The overt suggestion, which was once again cheered lustily by sections of the BJP leadership and its rank and file, was that Manmohan Singh was complicit in these scams. In terms of political tactics and strategy, this was an attempt to enlarge the use of corruption charges as a political weapon against the Congress, bringing in hitherto untargeted persons into the ambit.

Shaken edifice

The December 21 verdict has certainly put a dampener on these attempts. The strong words used by O.P. Saini, the Special CBI Court judge, asserting that there was “nil evidence” to suggest either criminality or corruption in the 2G spectrum allocation should undoubtedly moderate the BJP’s attacks on the Congress over alleged corruption scandals. More so because the three and a half years of the Modi government have not seen investigations leading to conviction in any of these cases. Saini observed: “For about seven years now, on all working days, summer vacation included, I religiously sat in the open court from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., awaiting someone with some legally admissible evidence in his possession, but all in vain. Not a single soul turned up. This indicates that everybody was going by public perception created by rumour, gossip and speculation. However, public perception has no place in judicial proceedings.” The judge talks about the prosecution side’s laxity in the past seven years. The BJP has been in power under Modi for half of that period. It is in this context that senior BJP leader Subramanian Swamy evaluates the verdict as “potentially a big setback for Modi”.

Of course, the official response from BJP spokespersons is that this is not the final verdict and that it will be appealed against in higher courts. But there is grudging admission, even among the higher leadership, that the edifice of the anti-corruption campaign against the Congress has been shaken. Modi’s own reaction has been predictable. Iterating his standard reaction when confronted with difficult political challenges, the otherwise hyper-voluble Prime Minister has slunk into silence, offering no comments at all on an issue that virtually catapulted him to power.

Congress response

The Congress leadership, too, has sought to highlight this muted response of the BJP. Manmohan Singh’s first reaction was that he “respected the court judgment” and that it had put “propaganda to rest”. The more vocal Sibal claimed that his claim of “zero loss to the exchequer” had been upheld. Former Union Minister M. Veerappa Moily accused former CAG Vinod Rai of having been hand in glove with the BJP in his projection of Rs.1.76 lakh crore as the presumptive loss caused by the alleged scam and demanded an apology. He said: “Bofors is an example. The BJP was harping on allegations which were not based on any evidence. But we had to pay a price. We lost our government and it did irreparable damage to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s excellent image. Now, who will compensate us for that? Similarly, in the 2G case, the BJP churned out a campaign based on falsehoods and it used the then CAG Vinod Rai in its conspiracy. Vinod Rai was appointed CAG by our government. But he was unhappy for certain reasons, he wanted to become the Cabinet Secretary but could not, and he was nursing a grudge against us. Never before had a CAG ventured into calculating ‘presumptive losses’, but he did that and the BJP went to town with this.”

Moily also said that the country would give a befitting reply to the BJP, now that “the falsehood” had been exposed. “They will certainly give the reply in the next general elections.” His optimism was shared by senior Congress leader Shakeel Ahamed, who said that the party and other UPA constituents would reach out to the people to highlight the salient features of the verdict.

Evidently, these sections of the Congress leadership expect that the political resonances of the December 21 verdict can be kept alive for a long time through sustained campaigns and interactions with the people. Sibal’s comment emphasising the moral victory and admitting that it will not bring back what is lost seems to be the most realistic. This is also in keeping with the history of political corruption cases in India. A study of this record shows that while the allegations themselves generate decisive political impacts, the tardy and time-consuming legal proceedings, including the partial judgments that come up from time to time, dilute them.

Of course, the climate created by the judgment does provide an opportunity for the Congress leadership, particularly for Rahul Gandhi, who was recently elevated as party president, to launch a nationwide campaign to revive the party.

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