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After a long spell of vote bank tears, the Indian National Congress is now laughing all the way to the bank. The Punjab National Bank (PNB) Scam involving Wharton dropout-turned-diamond entrepreneur Nirav Modi (NiMo) has become manna from political heaven for its party president Rahul Gandhi to his lowest minions. They are gleefully flaunting Letters of Undertaking (LOU) worth over `11,000 crore issued by PNB to NiMo to tar NaMo’s squeaky clean image with the black brush of corruption.
The shrinking Congress, boosted by recent bypoll wins in Rajasthan and an impressive performance in Gujarat, is using the vanishing acts of beer baron Vijay Mallya with the diamond earrings and fugitive diamond pasha Nirav Modi to put the BJP and its super-active Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the back foot. In politics, propaganda often wins over performance. In governance, the failure of preventive mechanisms attracts the tag of ‘unclean government.’ If NiMo and company could nonchalantly fly out of the country in spite of being under serious investigation for fraud, it is the political leadership that comes under fire for connivance and nepotism. And elections are won or lost not on the basis of performance but on public perception.
Most of the past ten Lok Sabha elections were fought primarily on the corruption plank. It is no coincidence that major scams surface during the last year of any elected government. In the past few months, the Congress and its allies have been digging deep and combing every nook and corner of the government for scandals to wash away their own past transgressions.
During the last Parliament session, the entire Opposition combined to corner the Prime Minister on the Rafale deal. It accused him of personally influencing the purchase of French aircraft at an inflated price by ignoring established procurement procedures. Prior to that, it had launched a concerted attack on the Modi government for letting former IPL chief Lalit Modi and Mallya escape Indian agencies. Last year, it targeted Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje and Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Chauhan for indulging in irregular financial deals. Though no solid evidence has surfaced to sustain the charges, the smear campaign has definitely influenced popular perception of the BJP negatively.
Prime Minister Modi, Amit Shah, Union ministers, BJP chief ministers and other leaders have been constantly tom-tomming that their party has given the nation a corruption-free government at the Centre. They have also been stating that it is under their regime that many scandals have been unearthed and four former CMs were jailed for corruption.
The BJP has been painting the Congress as the most fertile nursery of venality—Modi never misses an opportunity to remind the electorate about massive scams like Bofors, 2G, Coalgate et al. that took place under Congress rule. The Congress is now paying back the ruling party in its own coin, as in the past its opponents had played the corruption card to demolish leaders of stature such as Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, P V Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh.
Even though the Emergency’s excesses in North India cost Indira the 1977 elections, it was charges of rampant corruption in her government that fuelled the decisive mass agitation led by Jayaprakash Narayan in 1974. Later, in 1989, her son Rajiv suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of his own former finance minister, V P Singh, who used the yet-to-be- proved Bofors payoff as a WMD. Then came the turn of Narasimha Rao, the father of India’s economic reforms, and erudite scholar, to be humbled at the hustings by the Harshad Mehta scandal and other scams. Corruption has also claimed the scalps of chief ministers like Gundu Rao, B S Yeddyurappa, Mayawati, the Badals, Virbhadra Singh, Lalu Prasad and more.
Though other significant problems like inflation, unemployment, agrarian stress and poor health amenities have been used to mobilize voters, there is no poison more potent than the tainted image of a ruling party and its leaders to determine the final outcome of elections from the local to the national level. The fact that a few regional satraps with criminal records and corruption charges could become lawmakers is only an exception that proves the rule.
Since the countdown to Election 2019 has begun with all the key players stocking up on populist arsenals, corruption seems to be the weapon of the hour. If Congress leaders are to be believed, they have already zeroed in on over two dozen deals struck by various key ministries, about 50 cases of bank loan restructuring, social media spends by all the ministries, and public contracts won by relatives of Union ministers, chief ministers and BJP office-bearers.
It has chosen to attack only those who claim to be close to Shah or NaMo. It is obvious that it is determined to demolish Brand Modi by portraying him as a leader who is unable to control corruption and favouritism. It has floated over 2,000 WhatsApp groups to spread crude jokes ridiculing him. Since it cannot dry-clean the old stains on its own image, the Congress propaganda policy is to prove that the Modi administration is a fallen Caesar’s wife. But they must remember that the BJP and its allies could crush the Congress because they were provided the ammunition by credible whistleblowers like T N Chaturvedi in 1989 and Vinod Rai in 2012. Both CAGs produced scathing reports which were converted into pyres for burning down Congress governments of the time. Now the Grand Old Party would need more than fading glitterati like NiMo to even minimally erode NaMo’s invincibility.