It must intrigue students of Indian politics why Mr Narendra Modi, who after his victory in May 2014 refused to give the Congress the official position as the chief opposition in Parliament with its leader in the rank of Cabinet minister as Leader of the Opposition, has through his almost five years targeted that party as his enemy in chief.
Eliminating the family from the political landscape in the 2019 general elections is an important element in Modi’s effort to erase the presence of the Congress, the only party standing in the path of a BJP- Sangh hegemony in India. A Congress-Mukt Bharat comes as close to a Hindu Rashtra as democratic politics will allow in this day and age. The regional satraps do not cross their political geography, or their clan’s blood boundaries; of that, he is sure. Even the Bahujan Samaj party with a theoretical larger footprint has not been able to imagine itself as a national challenge.
And in the dying moments of his government, Mr Modi is trying to give out a signal that he has the Gandhi clan firmly in his gunsights, and is just waiting for the moment to see them behind the bars. In the gunsight are Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul, the Congress president, and her son in law Robert Vadra whose wife Priyanka has just assumed office as a party general secretary. Sonia and Rahul are out on bail in what is known as the National Herald case. Robert Vadra is on pre-emptive bail in his cases with the Enforcement Directorate before which he appeared this week.
There is a desperation in the design. The stakes are very high. And time is running out for Modi.
He has failed to deliver on his New Dawn and Good Days promises of jobs and development. The anti-corruption rhetoric, which helped soften up the Congress with the help of the Anna Hazare, Arvind Kejriwal movement for his coup de grâce blow, was no longer relevant. The Hindutva movement, always the reserve arsenal and ammunition, was brought out, and failed. The Mandir issue has been postponed till long after the elections.
The Central Bureau of Investigations’ half-baked ambush of chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who with her Andhra counterpart Chandrababu Naidu sought to build a grand coalition across the country, would therefore seem no more than a pincer movement to warn off other groups that their leaders will have to pay dearly for any intervention.
It is not just political gadfly Subramaniam Swamy, whose ministerial career was cut short when Rajiv Gandhi pulled the plug on the Chandrasekhar government he was backing from the outside, and whose wife’s judicial ambitions were denied serially by the Congress, who routinely speaks of the family going to jail. Modi’s pet phrase is "Those On Bail, Will Go To Jail": They did not fathom that a tea seller would ever muster the courage to challenge a family which governed the nation for four generations, Modi told BJP youth, as re ported by ANI on January 31, 2019.
Unlike his party president Amit Shah, Modi has never been to jail, claiming he avoided arrest during the emergency by disguising himself as Sikh and in other garbs. Amit Shah, who was once home minister in the Modi led Gujarat government, was indeed arrested in 2010 by the Central Bureau of Investigations probing the death of Sohrabuddin Sheikh and his wife Kausar Bi in an alleged police encounter in 2005. As happened many times in many other high profile cases in the past, the CBI mysteriously did not demand custodial interrogation of Shah, who then spent his jail time in judicial custody. The memory must rankle.
Narendra Modi has built his second innings in politics on the basis of what are called clean chits. He has never faced a full enquiry by any state or central investigating agency for the main charge against him, of presiding if not conniving in the mass murder of Muslims in the 2002 violence in Gujarat. Proper charges were not framed nor a case brought in a normal criminal trial court. Instead, a Special Investigating Team which probed the violence gave a clean chit to, Narendra Modi, then chief minister.
Zakia Jafri, the widow of Ehsan Jafri, the former Congress Member of Parliament who was burnt alive in his house in the violence, then filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the Gujarat High Court order which had upheld the SIT report. The Supreme Court recently said it would need to study the SIT's closure report. But meanwhile, Modi and his acolytes have taken the clean chit as ‘certifying to his innocence’ in the case.
It is a moot question if the Prime minister and his aides, among them the redoubtable National security Advisor Ajit Doval, whose influence now spans economics and politics apart from foreign affairs and both internal and external security, have thought through implications of arresting any of the Gandhis, or Vadra, the most vulnerable of them as he does not bear that politically hallowed surname.
In the post-independence era, Indira Gandhi was the only one ever to be arrested by the police. This was after she ended the emergency, and lost the general elections she had called. The Janata Party government, which was examining her excesses of the Emergency, and the Shah Commission did get her lifted by the police. The jeep took her along in a long ride through Delhi and Haryana. But it marked the turning point in the political life of Indira Gandhi. The Emergency was her swansong, they had said. Her defeat in the general elections – she lost her own seat and her party could win just a solitary seat in north India – was the end of her political career, and perhaps of the Congress too.
The arrest saw the party rallying behind her, with the cadres regaining their enthusiasm. Confined in 1977 to just the four southern states, the Congress sprung back to power in 1980, and remained till Rajiv Gandhi lost the majority in the Bofors scandal. Other than Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where it could never regain its preeminent position, the Congress has jumped back to power with PV Narasimha Rao after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, and then again in 2004 after the defeat of the Atal Behari Vajpayee.
This should haunt Modi. Although Sonia is no longer centre stage, her illness, widely presumed to be some form of cancer, saw the party mantle pass on to Rahul Gandhi. Dismissed as ‘Pappu”, a term of humiliating derision which comes close to being read as “imbecile”, the auburn haired and fit bearded Rahul surprised everyone, including people in the party, other non-BJP politicians, and of course the BJP leadership, by emerging from his soft shell not as dilettante butterfly but as fighting hornet. His language skills show a new combativeness, marched only by Laloo Prasad Yadav’s son Tejashwi, or former UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav. He took on Narendra Modi repeatedly in the Lok Sabha, challenging the Prime minister to a debate duel on the issue of the Rafale fighter aircraft deal in which the Congress leader accused the prime minister of stealing Rs 30,000 crores from the Air Force and passing it on to his crony Anil Ambani.
Modi has in turn mocked Rahul, but has shown no inclination to accept his challenge of a debate. The party has also rebuffed all attempts to have a parliamentary committee examination on the deal, banking on a tentative and misread ruling of the Supreme Court which stressed the urgent need of defence preparedness but did not go into the charge of wheeling dealing in the pact with France, the manufacturers of the Rafale.
While it is true that Sonia Gandhi and Rahul have a bail from court in the case involving the National Herald, the Congress newspaper, its holding company, and the building Herald house on India’s fleet street Bahadurshah Zafar Marg, the two and the party have been fighting it out in court and on the streets.
At this stage, it does not seem likely that the courts will withdraw the bail to make it easy for Modi to arrest the two. Modi must consider this as a godsend, an excuse. Any arrest of Sonia Gandhi, and of Rahul, can only hasten their ascent to power once again.
A resurgent Congress in a new government may not be as kind to Modi and Shah as Sonia and Manmohan Singh were to them in 2004. It remains an abiding mystery why the UPA government of Manmohan Singh did not pursue the cases against Modi with the vigour that gravity of the mass murders demanded. There is some truth in the political gossip that members of the Congress and friendly allies, had warned that sending Modi to jail would be counterproductive and would turn the Hindu community away from the Congress in West and northern India. It was perhaps also a repaying for the RSS-BJP help that was given to Rajiv Gandhi in 1984 when Congress won 404 seats, and the BJP just two, a “sacrifice” the party made as a tribute to Indira Gandhi.
So, is Vadra the only vulnerable person from that political clan? Many would say the BJP shot its bolt when it dilly dallied on Vadra’s land deals in Haryana and perhaps in Europe out of fear they would also implicate many of its own leaders and supporters. Real estate with its long gestation periods usually sees a peculiar truce if not partnership between political parties and leaders.
Even if the Enforcement Directorate, the favoured hound dog with the centre after the Central Bureau of Investigations whose reputation and credibility now lies in tatters, can build up a case in the time it has before the general elections, it may not be able to get custodial interrogation of Robert Vadra, putting him in jail to use the common term.
Vadra is deeply political as a persona but is not in active politics. His wife is. And she has pre-empted any effort by the government by saying she stands by her husband. She accompanied him to his questioning by the Enforcement Directorate. And picked him back.
Vadra, it would seem, is no longer a political brick around the Congress neck.
In the tit for tat on corruption, Rafale does, in the balance, outweigh everything combined from Bofors to land deals.
So, where does the attack on Mamata Banerjee figure in this scheme of things. Modi has once again shot himself in the foot. Mamata is the heroine of the day, standing firm in support of her officers, and in making this seem an assault on the autonomy of the states in a federal polity. Every single political group, barring her arch enemy Communist Party Marxist, has extended support to her. Rahul Gandhi has been vociferous in lauding her “defend the Constitution” dharna in Kolkata. The Supreme Court may not have ruled in her favour, but it did not rule against her.
Above all, there is the question of Mukul Roy and Hemant Biswa Sharma, two of the main guilty in the so-called Sharda scam are today pillars of the BJP in east India and in the Centre. That is a can of worms Modi may not want to open fully. Not for the time being.(Published on 11th February 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 07)