There was a time in India when corruption was a hot political issue. Now it’s just another political weapon.
Let’s take a case from the headlines: the so-called Delhi liquor scam and the arrest of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Manish Sisodia, who resigned from the post of deputy chief minister Tuesday. If the charges levelled by the CBI are upheld, then the consequences should be devastating for CM Arvind Kejriwal and his party.
Kejriwal first came to national prominence skulking behind Anna Hazare’s dhoti. At that stage, during UPA 2, Kejriwal asked us to trust him because neither he nor his partners in the Anna movement were in it for themselves. They had taken to the streets, he said, only because they wanted to fight the menace of corruption.
In time, most of his claims proved to be hollow. The first to be thrown off the bus (metaphorically, at least) was Anna Hazare who had been put forward as the movement’s ostensible leader. Next Kejriwal also flung all his other allegedly high-minded fellow agitators off the bus, one by one. Kiran Bedi, the Bhushans, Yogendra Yadav, Kumar Vishwas and all the others who had once appeared on TV shows talking about the battle against corruption disappeared from view.
Next to go was the claim that they were all in it for the public good, not for power or position. Among the few people of consequence left standing after the purges in India Against Corruption movement, was Kejriwal’s long-standing associate Sisodia. The two of them became the founders of a new political party, AAP, and both have enjoyed political power since then.
So what does a party born out of an anti-corruption platform do when its ex-deputy CM gets arrested on corruption charges? Or that another former senior minister — Satyendra Jain — is already sitting in jail?
Does the AAP worry when the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate say there is substantial evidence of corruption in the government? Isn’t this the exact opposite of what Arvind Kejriwal had claimed he stood for? Shouldn’t AAP be embarrassed?
Actually, no. They are not at all embarrassed by the arrests or the innumerable corruption charges. There is no merit to any of the charges, says Kejriwal. His government is being ‘targeted by the Centre’.
This is bold but not unusual. Every politician who is caught with his or her fingers in the till always claims that it is a frame-up. The difference is that this time, this defence seems to be holding up. There is very little evidence that AAP has lost support in Delhi or that the charges have hurt the government in the way that, say, Kejriwal’s allegations crippled the Manmohan Singh government and led to Sheila Dikshit’s defeat.
This is becoming the pattern. In the run-up to the 2021 West Bengal assembly election, central investigative agencies claimed to have uncovered scam after scam, nearly every one linked to the Trinamool Congress (TMC). The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) launched a high-decibel campaign against TMC and key political figures were arrested.
But when the election came around, not one scandal seemed to matter. Mamata Banerjee and TMC won by a landslide.
Also read: Arvind Kejriwal is shrewd. Congress is wrong on Sisodia raid. And BJP is pushing its luck
The no-result playbook
Slowly but surely, corruption has ceased to be a political issue. Either people have become so cynical that they no longer care whether a politician is corrupt or they simply don’t believe the charges.
This seems to be true across the board. The BJP spent much of its first term telling the world how corrupt the Gandhis were and that they had used the National Herald newspaper to make money. It had such little impact that the matter is hardly discussed now.
Rahul Gandhi’s 2019 Lok Sabha election campaign was fought entirely on the Rafale deal where he levelled personal allegations against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Very few people paid the slightest bit of attention. More recently, the efforts to link Gautam Adani’s growth to Modi’s personal camaraderie with the businessman seemed to have done little damage to the PM.
There are many possible reasons that corruption has ceased to be a political issue. It could be that people have worked out that nothing comes of the big corruption scandals. Despite the BJP’s best efforts, all primary accused in the 2G spectrum case were acquitted by the courts. There is also a weary recognition that all political parties make money so it’s hard to be judgmental about one party; far better to look at other reasons to decide who to vote for.
Another reason for the lack of any considerable public outrage today is that there is now a one-sided predictability to corruption investigations. As The Indian Express reported last year, of the 124 political leaders investigated by the CBI since the Modi government first came to power, 118 (or 95 per cent) were from the opposition.
Never before in India’s history has the ruling party been so consistent in leveling corruption charges against opponents while giving itself and its members a free pass.
You could say, in the BJP’s defence, that all its members are squeaky clean while opposition politicians are corrupt. But even this slightly incredible defence would not work because the BJP has cheerfully linked hands with crooks from other parties, many of whom have joined the BJP. How do we know these people are crooks? Because the BJP told us so.
In West Bengal, the BJP was willing to forget about corruption charges against any TMC member if they switched sides. In Maharashtra, central agencies arrested functionaries and ministers of then-ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi coalition in a manner that ended with Shiv Sena’s split and eventually the government’s fall. There was a point when some Shiv Sena members had openly asked the party leadership to align with the BJP to save their skins.
Eventually, when the BJP broke the Shiv Sena (using only ideological arguments to win MLAs over, of course), those who were being investigated joined the BJP and their previous sins were quickly forgotten.
I suspect that all this has made people sceptical about the charges of corruption that are so frequently levelled against non-BJP politicians. They don’t necessarily feel sorry for the politicians being locked up by the agencies (it’s been a long time since Indians have felt sorry for politicians) but they don’t automatically believe the charges either.
In the process, the BJP’s approach has ensured that corruption is not the big issue it used to be. Now, when people hear about opposition leaders being raided and arrested, they recognise that this is just political warfare, not a blow for integrity in public life.
That ultimately is the BJP’s contribution to cleanliness in politics. Corruption charges are no longer shocking. They are just a weapon to be used against political opponents. And so, even if there is substance to the charges against Manish Sisodia, his arrest has not really hurt AAP.
The voters regard it as just the new way of doing politics in India.
Vir Sanghvi is a print and television journalist, and talk show host. He tweets @virsanghvi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)