Media reports say that the Modi government has rejected a Russian request to engage Adanis in the Rs 3000 crore AK-103 rifle deal and instead asked the Russians to partner government-owned Indian Ordnance Factories. If so, Congress president Rahul Gandhi can rightfully claim credit for government’s rethink as its “nationalistic” concern comes in the wake of Rahul’s sustained campaign against buying 36 Rafale fighter jets from France’s Dassault at “inflated” prices and partnering a newly minted company of Anil Ambani’s Reliance Group in the Rs 59,000 crore deal overlooking state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd which has experience in manufacturing a range of aircraft including Sukhoi, Hawk and Jaguar.
Three years ago Rahul forced Modi government to put the “anti-farmer” Land Acquisition Bill in cold storage. On the eve of Gujarat elections the Centre was compelled to amend GST laws as the Congress president spearheaded an aggressive campaign against hasty implementation of faulty tax laws. However, a question being asked is: Is Rahul’s “timing” flawed?
As a constructive Opposition leader he ought to flag such issues for greater public interest. But, at the same time he should remember that the raison d’etre of a political party is to win elections and form government. Even as he is making steady progress in winning the perception battle and emerging as a leader of reckoning the Congress president has been found wanting in two key areas, that is; not paying enough attention to the party organisation and making “tactical” moves. Without a major organisational overhaul winning elections will not be easy. That is why the Congress has so far not been able to electorally exploit glaring governance deficit, be it the demonetisation fiasco, flawed GST, job loss, skyrocketing oil prices and sinking law and order situation.
As regards tactical mistakes Rafale is the latest. The attack may have put the BJP on the back-foot, but it was ill-timed. Rahul could have kept the ammunition ready for use in the Lok Sabha elections and desisted from making personal attacks on Modi and Ambani. He could have let his minions speak while keeping himself insulated as the political space unfolds. Sustaining the controversy till the elections will be difficult given the tepid response of the Opposition and the mainstream media. BJP’s astute political management is such that even veterans such as former BJP ministers Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie and eminent lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan failed to make an impact despite holding a presser alleging that the “scam” involving Rafale deal is “much bigger than the Bofors scandal”.
By raking up the issue too early the element of surprise that is vital in any warfare has been lost giving BJP sufficient time to blunt the attack. The belated FIR against Robert Vadra and former Haryana CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda in a land fraud case allegedly committed 10 years ago is instructive. The Congress president ran a high decibel campaign against Land Acquisition Bill endearing himself to distressed farmers, but Modi, realising the damage potential killed the bill and salvaged the situation and Rahul lost an electoral weapon. Ditto GST. He managed to strike a chord with small and medium traders, but a sufficiently-warned Modi government tweaked the law on the eve of Gujarat elections to win back the support of the trading community; the government may further dilute the tax slabs before the LS polls depriving Congress another poll issue.
In a perfectly timed move in 1989 the late V P Singh successfully milked the Bofors “scandal” and became Prime Minister as he got a good press and the entire Opposition, right and left, rallied behind him. Today, Rahul has neither the media nor the Opposition in making Rafale a big election issue.
Most parties are wary of mounting personal attacks on corporate honchos given the symbiotic relationship between power politics and business houses. The corporates are driven solely by profit motive and it is politically imprudent to burn bridges with the ideology agnostics. PM aspirant and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal who exulted in making personal attacks on Modi and corporate biggies has since changed tack as he found the exercise futile. Even the RSS has now adopted a diplomatic, politically correct approach towards big businesses. No wonder, the BJP is flush with funds from corporate donors whereas the Congress, hit hard by cash crunch, is forced to seek crowd-funding to run its affairs.
In 1987 the late PM Rajiv Gandhi was forced to shunt VP Singh from finance to defence ministry following complaints allegedly by Dhirubhai Ambani and Amitabh Bachchan protesting raids on some industrialists. In the defence ministry, Singh revolted against Rajiv alleging kickbacks in the Bofors gun deal. Rajiv sacked him from the cabinet and a stung Singh resigned from the Congress and Lok Sabha and led the then National Front to victory in 1989. The rest is history. In less than a year in office Singh lost a confidence vote and resigned as PM. As prime minister he had another round of run-ins with Ambani senior. During his election rallies Singh, betraying a tinge of dishonesty, used to point to his pocket claiming that it had a piece of paper with the number of the bank account into which the Bofors kickbacks were paid. He did a U-turn in 2004 saying that Rajiv Gandhi never took bribe in the deal and that BJP had made that allegation.
Early this week senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh made a condescending statement. “The Congress was not against corporate India… The Congress stands for a healthy corporate India… a corporate India that functions according to rules and regulations and not on political whims and fancies… but when there is evidence of a nexus… evidence that laws have been broken then action must be taken against the corporate sector, however influential they are,” he told the Indian Express. Is it not a bit of wishful thinking? Can Rahul Gandhi, with just 45 Lok Sabha MPs and fighting multiple demons, change the unwritten corporate-politician patronage concordat overnight?
Kay Benedict is an independent journalist.