An enemy in need is a friend indeed. The Enforcement Directorate’s well-publicised blitzkrieg against the Gandhis and company in the National Herald investigation has invigorated the moribund Congress. ED was also a handy weapon to intimidate Shiv Sena and NCP netas with corruption charges; defections ended the Maha Vikas Aghadi government.
This week, Sonia struck back by toppling the BJP-JD(U) government in Bihar by supporting Nitish Kumar and getting Lalu Prasad to back him. Signal: “I’m down, but not out. Yet.” Sure, there are irregularities in the transfer of Herald assets, but whether the Gandhis are guilty as charged is an answer whose time has not come. Karma is a bitch; they had presided over a dark subculture of corruption undernourished by crony capitalists, obliging heads of PSUs and banks, opportunistic arms dealers, suave sadhus and shady power brokers.
In 1983, the Gandhi materfamilias Indira declared that “corruption was a global phenomenon.” A Bombay High Court had ruled against A R Antulay, the Congress CM of Maharashtra who sold precious government-controlled cement to builders in exchange for “donations’’ to his private trust fund. Around the same time, Indira’s cousin B K Nehru, then the J&K governor, lamented that apart from politicians and ministers, the IAS, which “used at one time to be, like Caesar’s wife, wholly above suspicion”, has become financially dishonest, too.
It was the shadow of corruption in the Bofors deal that hobbled the career of Rajiv Gandhi, who brought the Congress the largest seat haul by any party in Parliament: 404 out of 514 in 1984. In death, it was Indira’s parting gift to her son and the party she had so ruthlessly controlled. But not before creating the persecution template that ruthlessly put down her antagonists—during the Emergency and thereafter, the CBI became the PM’s personal weapon to settle political vendettas. Kapil Sibal was wrong; it is no caged parrot, but a trained hawk that sits on the (velvet) glove of its master ready to pounce on recalcitrant allies and friends. Calling agencies like the ED and CBI non-partisan is like calling Tihar Jail, Club Med.
Irrespective of political affiliation, corruption is an everlasting pandemic in the Indian ecosystem. It infects all vectors from education to agriculture, from technology to sports, and from medicine to the military. There is a vast necropolis inhabited by its sleazy surrogates, who have perfected the art of concealment using a vast web of shell companies, remote routers, offshore banking systems and proxies. It is practically impossible to expose them all—the reason perhaps why ED’s conviction rate is just about 0.5 per cent.
Congress or BJP, RJD or JD, TDP or TMC, there is equality in graft. Narendra Modi’s demonetisation blizzard didn’t topple corruption’s citadels: according to RBI data, more than 99 per cent of currency notes invalidated by demonetisation returned to the banking system; of the Rs, 15.41 lakh crore, notes worth Rs 15.31 lakh crore returned. It isn’t that the ED and its crusading colleagues are wrong in targeting venal politicos; every neta has his day in court depending on the government of the day.
The terrifying calm and sense of purpose with which the current establishment decimates or arm-twists its enemies are almost biblical: the mills of Modi grind slow, but they grind exceedingly small. The National Herald case won’t be over any time soon—but when the ED’s final denouement comes closer to Election Day in 2024, how small the Gandhis would have become will depend on how much of the Congress is mincemeat or has joined the BJP to survive.