In a multitude of uncertainties about the 2019 polls, there is one fact we can all agree on: This will not be a wave election. There is neither an upsurge of support for Prime Minister Narendra Modi nor any sort of mass rage against him (of the kind the Congress had to face in 2014).
On the ground, there is, however, clear discontent and simmering anger with the government over economic issues, especially the jobs crisis and agrarian distress. This can erupt in many localised pockets. The Bharatiya Janata Party strategy – apart from redressal through welfare schemes in the interim budget – is to look for other headlines to deflect from the narrative about a desultory economic situation. Hindutva is one such election headline and corruption is evidently the other.
Both the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) swoop in West Bengal in relation to a chit fund scam and the interrogation of Robert Vadra by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) on charges of money laundering are to fortify this counter-narrative. The problem is this: The BJP has got its timing all wrong.
In the Saradha chit fund case, the CBI is technically correct in arguing that its investigation was Supreme Court mandated and hence its officials did not need any warrants when they arrived to question Kolkata police commissioner Rajeev Kumar. But the argument comes across as disingenuous because the court order was passed in 2014. For nearly two years there was not even procedural forward movement in the investigation. In the meantime, big names from the Trinamool Congress like Mukul Roy, who had been linked to the scam, crossed over to the BJP and were suddenly absolved of corruption allegations. When case files that have only been gathering dust are suddenly taken out, the BJP’s weapon of attack gets blunted. Yes, it was inappropriate for serving police officers to join the dharna led by Mamata Banerjee. But if the Bengal police can be accused of politicisation, so, too, must the CBI for becoming an instrument of political muscle flexing for the BJP. In this zero sum game, it is difficult for the BJP to build an authentic case.
The same mistake has been made with regard to Robert Vadra. In the 2014 campaign, Narendra Modi himself would mock the Gandhi family and the businessman-husband of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. The “Damaad-ji” swipe became a favourite taunt to the Congress. At the time, there was likely little public sympathy for Vadra. Had the investigative agencies questioned him in the early years of the Modi government, the political effect may have been much more potent. In both the states of Haryana and Rajasthan, where Vadra is alleged to have struck contentious land deals, the BJP was in power. Yet, despite a window of several years, neither state closed any clinching case against Vadra. The present controversy/allegations of links with arms dealer Sanjay Bhandari and the charge of benami property in London has also been in the public domain for over two years. Journalists across television networks broke this story in 2016. So, if there was indeed enough evidence to make a concrete case, what was the BJP government and the relevant agencies doing all this while?
The way this now comes across to most people is that the timing of the Vadra interrogation is linked to the entry of Priyanka Gandhi in electoral politics. The party’s new general secretary in charge of east UP also made a bold political statement by accompanying her husband to the ED office and then driving from there to take charge at the party headquarters. Priyanka’s message was clear: Neither she nor the Congress was going to shy away from taking the issue head on. It was almost a dare to the Modi government. What she told the media – that she will stand by her husband and her family – is exactly what millions of Indians would have said in her position. By moving against Vadra in the same week that Priyanka Gandhi officially embraced her new political role, the BJP has miscalculated badly. Not just do their motives seem suspect, they betray a certain degree of panic.
Without getting into the merits of the cases that either the CBI or the ED is trying to build against different opposition leaders, the fact that it is all happening one month before the model code of conduct kicks in, could well boomerang on the BJP. Several right-wing supporters are puzzled at why the government was in paralysis on these cases all these years.
To act in the twilight of its tenure is not smart politics. It may have handed over the advantage to the opposition.