There are 6 conditions for a defence scam to become a political game changer, Rafale deal already fulfils four.
Will the Rafale deal do to Narendra Modi what Bofors did to Rajiv Gandhi? As we enter the last lap of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, this question holds the key to the final outcome. You don’t have to be a psephologist – whatever it means – to see the basics. It’s common sense that the BJP can only fall from the peak it had attained in 2014. It’s public knowledge that its decline has begun. It’s no brainer that the impending SP-BSP alliance and other regional coalitions are bound to damage the BJP. The real question is: How much would the BJP fall? How the Rafale deal unfolds over the next few months can make the critical difference here.
The history of Indian elections tells us that there are six conditions for corruption allegations to become a game changer. First, there should be a general context of public disquiet over corruption. Second, there should be a critical case that symbolises corruption. Third, some independent evidence should confirm the allegations. Fourth, the regime’s counter should not be plausible. Five, mass communication should take this to the public at large. Six, there should be a credible alternative for people to junk the regime. The Rafale case meets the first four Cs; everything now hinges on the last two. (Don’t blame me for the forced alliteration here. Modiji has introduced this acronym virus in the country!)
Two years ago the country was simply not ready for another corruption scandal. Prime Minister Modi’s rating was very high. The contrast between this regime and the corruption-ridden days of the UPA appeared just too stark for the public to pay attention to any wrongdoing by the Modi government. We have come a long way since. The unfolding of the demonetisation disaster and the accompanying whispers that the BJP leaders were forewarned began to take off this government’s sheen. Scandals surrounding Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi, Mehul Choksi and company also drew public attention. A representative and credible barometer, the Lokniti-CSDS State of the Nation Survey for ABP News, shows a dramatic shift in the public mood. In May 2017, those who thought Modi government had done a ‘good job’ of curbing corruption were 43 per cent, compared to 35 per cent who said it did a ‘bad job’. Exactly a year later in May 2018, the same poll found that the balance had reversed: 36 per cent were happy while 55 per cent were unhappy with Modi government’s record on corruption.
This is the context for Rafale deal’s re-entry into public debate. This case has all the elements that make for a political scandal with an electoral impact. It involves a substantial amount of up to Rs 30,000 crores — the alleged commission for offset deals. It concerns national security. There is the ‘foreign hand’ angle. The alleged beneficiary is a big and failed corporate with a name that stands for cronyism. And, above all, it implicates the Prime Minister directly, more directly than Bofors involved then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Thus, it is a perfect case to charge this government with.
By now there is enough independent evidence in the public domain to make this charge stick. Several interviews show that our minister of defence, the ministry of external affairs and the French counterparts had no idea that the deal was suddenly going to be reversed on the day of Prime Minister Modi’s 2015 visit to France. Cost break-ups handed out by the ministry of defence are enough to nail the lie about the cost being a national secret. Enough independent experts have compared the cost item-by-item to confirm that there was, at the very least, an unexplained doubling of cost between the proposed UPA deal and the final Modi deal. There is incontrovertible evidence of the violation of defence purchase procedures. The allegation about lion’s share of the offset deal going to Anil Ambani is confirmed by his own press release. And then there is the bombshell by Hollande that connects Modi directly to Anil Ambani’s sudden entry. There is no direct evidence yet of quid pro quo, of linking the windfall benefits for Anil Ambani to the current regime. But there is enough masala to hang this government in a public trial.
The confusion, contradictions and conceit in the government’s counter to the corruption allegations have made it worse. In the last couple of months, we have seen a political circus with every BJP leader and minister outbidding the rest in putting his or her foot in mouth on Rafale. First, the denials about public knowledge of cost, then claims about the cost being lower than the earlier deal. We have the spectacle of a defence minister running down HAL, one of the few public sector enterprises with a decent record and her claims being refuted by the retired HAL chief. Not far behind is the ministry of external affair’s faux-pax in making allegations of conflict of interest against former French President. Add to it the unseemly sight of the serving Air Force big-wigs being made to air opinions that are irrelevant, if not stepping into a political debate. Then we have the minister of spin doctoring, blogging away to show how incoherent and nervous this government is when it comes to the Rafale deal. And in case you were still unsure, the attempt to invoke Pakistan leaves you convinced that ‘daal me kuchh kaala hai’.
What, then, is missing? The issue has not had the kind of amplification that it deserves. These allegations and some of the evidence has been in the public domain for well over two years, but the media has simply not picked enough courage to talk about it. Rahul Gandhi’s speech in Parliament broke the conspiracy of silence, but Congress crying foul over corruption doesn’t make for a good article. Those implicated in Bofors cannot talk too loud on the Rafale deal. Hence the press conferences by Arun Shourie, Yashwant Sinha and Prashant Bhushan carry much greater conviction. The media has begun to report on the Rafale deal, but news TV channels are still cagey. An Axis-My India telephonic poll for India Today found that only 21 per cent of the voters in UP had heard about Rafale.
Finally, every corruption scandal needs a credible alternative − a face, an organisation, a party that offers clean government. That is hardly the hope a mahagatbandhan of Congress, BSP, JD(S), RJD and NCP generates.
Rafale is Bofors many times over; what it lacks is a V.P. Singh.
Yogendra Yadav is National President of the newly-formed party, Swaraj India