At the height of the Bofors howitzer scandal a quarter of a century ago, well-known lawyer Ram Jethmalani used to ask 10 questions a day to then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. As is known, the Congress lost the general election following the scam and no one from the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has been a prime minister since then.
It is too early say whether Arvind Kejriwal’s campaign against Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law and union Law Minister Salman Khurshid will have a similar impact, but the similarity between the provocative tactics of the veteran legal eagle and the social activist-turned-politician is obvious.
Unlike what journalists like Chitra Subramaniam and others did during the Bofors episode, when they carried out painstaking investigations to ascertain the truth (although it has remained elusive to this day), the India Against Corruption’s (IAC’s) ploy is to level allegations and leave it to the government to prove their veracity or otherwise.
The IAC is well aware that, first, the government will be loathe to follow its diktat if only because the rulers would not like to be seen succumbing to pressure. Secondly, even if, for argument’s sake, it does order a probe, the process of finding a judge, an office, clerical staff, etc., will take so long that the matter will be relegated to the background with other, more pressing and perhaps murkier issues coming to the fore.
As it is, Kejriwal and his band of warriors have moved on from their earlier preoccupations with the Lokpal bill and the charges of malfeasance against several ministers, including Pranab Mukherjee before he became President. Their aim is evidently not so much to get to the bottom of these matters as to muddy the waters.
As a political gambit, this approach has its uses. For a start, it will enhance the profile of the accusers. Since Kejriwal and Co. are new entrants in the political field, they can do with a dose of publicity. Earlier, this group was functioning under the shadow of Anna Hazare. Now, the crusader from Ralegan Siddhi has faded into the background and his followers have come to the fore.
The reason for their prominence is that they have succeeded in putting the government on the defensive since perception counts for more in public life than substance. Considering that the government’s image has long been under a cloud, it hasn’t been difficult for the accusers to switch successfully from their earlier moral coercion of protest marches and hunger strikes to be judge, jury and prosecutor.
Along with targeting Robert Vadra and Salman Khurshid, they are also battling against the hike in electricity rates and, for a time, Kejriwal had gone off to Kudankulum to agitate against the nuclear plant.
It might have been presumed that having entered politics, the IAC’s first task would be to formulate its political outlook by clarifying its positions on political and economic issues. Do they agree with Mamata Banerjee that India should be run from the states? Are they for a controlled economy or a market-driven one?
However, since these issues are probably too unexciting for the activists, they prefer navigating from one controversy to another to remain in the limelight. But the problem with such an adrenaline-driven approach is that, as in the Robocop movies, the anti-sleaze campaign has to be action-packed. There was a hint of a continuous flurry of activity when one of the more sober members of the group said that the focus may shift from Vadra to Ranjan Bhattacharya, husband of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s foster-daughter, and others in an unending process.
The group has also been conscious of presenting itself as politically neutral. Anna Hazare, too, faced this problem since he was perceived to be too close to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It is, therefore, possible that the next person or persons in the IAC’s line of fire will be the saffronites.
It is then that the real fun and games will begin. Up to now, the BJP has been happy to echo the IAC’s charges to corner the Congress. But in case the BJP itself faces the heat, the whole ball game will change, as it has already done on the Lokpal issue where it is no secret that the entire political class is united in its opposition to an all-powerful ombudsman.
Such a non-partisan approach will boost the image of Kejriwal and Co, showing them as true crusaders who have no favourites. It will also be in character because they earlier used to characterise all politicians as corrupt. However, their basic objective will remain the same – making a murky scene murkier.
Unless there is a substantiation of the allegations in a court of law, the charges will begin to lose their sting, just as Anna Hazare’s campaign has lost its momentum.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)