In the desi Harry Potter universe of Indian politics, Congress boss Rahul Gandhi is betting on the JPC curse to bring down Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2019 with demands for a joint parliamentary inquiry into the Rafael fighter aircraft deal. The Modi government has no intention to play political Quidditch in such an aerial skirmish with the Congress, which is treating the French plane as the golden snitch to get past the poll goalpost.
The Rafale controversy threatens to blitz democratic debate and discussions involving sensitive national issues over the security and defence of the nation. This is not the first time a defence deal has become a weapon of mass political destruction. Previously, a veneer of civility was observed in the bombardment of personalities and policies. Now the gloves are off. With the flak of personal abuse crowding the skies, leaders have descended from the clouds of consequence to savage street fights. Hallelujah! It’s raining bombs on and off the TV screens, but none of the combatants have questioned the quality of the aircraft. They also recognize the reality that the Indian Air Force is in urgent need of several hundred cutting-edge fighter planes to defend the country from future wars. Instead, the dogfights are over the cost and configuration.
Sharing is caring, in politics or life. `500 crore or `1,500 crore, the ruling party is not willing to share the price of each of the 36 aircraft negotiated with the French government—which is anyway a matter of official discord with the Opposition. The government has taken shelter under the secrecy clause. The recalcitrance of feuding stakeholders to yield any ground is only crippling the fighting capacity of the armed forces. This dire situation is reminiscent of the Bofors ammunition crisis, when the supplier was blacklisted. It takes the armed forces over 12 years to finalise a deal, but it takes politicians with vested interests just a few meetings with suppliers and middlemen to scuttle it.
Unfortunately, even genuine arms deals have become ordnance in election battles. It’s no coincidence that defence scandals pop up barely a year before elections and Opposition parties demand Joint Parliamentary Committees (JPCs) to uncover the ‘truth’; which rarely happens. Instead the JPC becomes an arena to settle political scores, since historically the party in power loses the election following a JPC being set up.
Hence it is not surprising that the Congress party and Opposition leaders are asking for a JPC to dissect the complicated over `55,000 crore Rafale deal. The JPCs are part of the legerdemain of politics to negotiate a ceasefire or to sweep scandals under the carpet without a fruitful outcome. In such power games, coincidence acquires the mystic power of superstition. From 1989 onwards, the Opposition has successfully forced the ruling party of the time to constitute six JPCs to probe allegations of financial irregularities. The BJP scored four out of six.
In 1989, it forced Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to constitute a JPC to look into an alleged Bofors payoff. Headed by former health minister Shankaranand, it dispatched numerous officials from investigative agencies on a global hunt to chase the money trail, but came a cropper. Subsequently, the Congress lost the elections and Rajiv became the first Gandhi Parivar member who failed to get a second consecutive term.
While the Bofors saga still haunts Indian politics, no member of the Gandhi Parivar has been convicted. In 1992, the entire Opposition including the BJP, prevailed over Prime Minister Narasimha Rao to constitute a JPC to investigate frauds perpetrated by Harshad Mehta, a leading stock market operator of the time, and bank officials for manipulating stock markets and swindling bank money. Even after 26 years, the nation is yet to know the names of the culprits and their methods. However, the Congress lost the subsequent election yet again.
When the NDA came to power in 1999, it was the turn of the Congress to turn the tables on the BJP. If the BJP had held the Congress hostage over the Harshad Mehta scam, the Congress targeted it over stockbroker Ketan Parekh’s illegitimate financial gains by manipulating the markets. Atal Bihari Vajpayee conceded its demand for a JPC and the matter died with the defeat of the NDA and the report was confined to the North Block archives. The Congress again went for the jugular and asked for another JPC in 2003 to look into pesticides in soft drinks, accusing the ruling BJP of pampering MNCs. The committee found the soft drink companies guilty of hawking polluted drinks; yet the report was never forwarded for concrete action against the offenders. Coincidentally, neither Vajpayee’s charisma nor the BJP’s Shining India slogan cut much ice with voters as the NDA was routed in 2004.
Strangely enough, many accusations were hurled at Manmohan Singh’s government during 2004 to 2009, including the vote-for-cash scandal that involved mustering support in defence of the nuclear deal. The Opposition didn’t press for a JPC. The Congress returned with a bigger mandate, winning over 200 seats after two decades. However, UPA-II was not so fortunate. The BJP once again joined the rest of the Opposition in 2011 in demanding a JPC to probe the 2G scam, which led to the resignation and arrest of a Union minister and the incarceration of senior government officials and corporate executives.
Thereon, the report exonerated the political leadership. Seven years later, the court acquitted the accused, including the former telecom minister, the DMK’s Andimuthu Raja, and Rajya Sabha MP M Kanimozhi. Again in 2013, the entire non-UPA opposition succeeded in forcing the government to establish another JPC to inquire into alleged irregularities in the purchase of helicopters for VVIPs. Was it due to the impact of the JPC dominating the news narrative for months that the Congress suffered a historic trashing with only 44 Lok Sabha seats in its kitty?
It is evident that the Congress sees a JPC on the Rafale deal as the best magical flying broomstick to land on the battlements of power. Today the BJP has a golden opportunity to deflate the Rafale backwash by taking into confidence top Congress leaders such as ex-PM Manmohan Singh and former Defence Minister AK Antony on the process of procurement. After all, they had access to all confidential files when they were in power, which they could access again in case they return to power. In America, the Senate has the authority to scrutinize judges and members of the President’s Cabinet. As Indian democracy matures, its stakeholders should engage in dialogue and disclosures on the basis of mutual trust. An electoral Armageddon for temporary gains will inevitably leave behind scars on the body politic—grim fairy tales notwithstanding.