The Congress may yet come out unscathed from the campaign launched against it by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party on the AgustaWestland helicopter bribery case but its worries are not going to go away in a hurry now that Subramanian Swamy has been nominated to the Rajya Sabha.
The maverick BJP leader’s presence in the upper house promises to be a constant irritant for the Congress. The confrontation witnessed between the BJP leader and the Congress members in the Rajya Sabha last week provided a glimpse of what is in store for the principal opposition party in the coming days.
With Swamy unlikely to back down from his “attack Sonia Gandhi” campaign, Congress members’ energies will now be focused on fighting him instead of targeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling alliance. In fact, Swamy has been brought to the Rajya Sabha by Modi with the specific objective of keeping up the pressure on Sonia Gandhi. Not only does this keep Modi out of the opposition firing line but it also ensures that the Congress is kept busy defending its party president.
Congress leaders and their allies privately maintain that the BJP’s current campaign against Sonia Gandhi on the AgustaWestland case does not worry them as much as does Swamy’s presence in the Rajya Sabha. “Swamy is a bigger concern… the membership of the Rajya Sabha is a signal to him by Modi that he should persist with his campaign against Sonia Gandhi,” remarked a senior opposition Rajya Sabha member.
While Swamy is waiting to fire his next salvo, the Congress is engaged in a slugfest with the BJP over its attempts to implicate Sonia Gandhi in the AgustaWestland bribery case. The fact that BJP president Amit Shah and senior party leaders have intensified their attack against the Congress president is a clear indicator that they are making a concerted effort to build this into a Bofors-like campaign of the late 1980s which eventually brought down the Rajiv Gandhi government.
While Swamy may still find ways of unsettling the Congress in the days to come, the ongoing controversy on the purchase of VVIP helicopters from an Italian firm is likely to blow over. For starters, the Bofors kickbacks case against Rajiv Gandhi surfaced when he was in power and the campaign against him was led by his own minister VP Singh who had the credibility and the moral authority to take on the then ruling dispensation.
Not quite Bofors
Unfortunately for the BJP, there is no VP Singh in its midst. While Amit Shah has been embroiled in criminal cases, most BJP ministers lack the stature to lead an anti-corruption crusade. At best, the BJP can continue with its campaign of insinuation against Sonia Gandhi as any deal with an Italian firm immediately arouses suspicion. “The truth is that BJP leaders do not have the moral authority to make such charges given the cases against them,” Janata Dal(U) MP KC Tyagi pointed out.
The BJP is also handicapped by the fact that the Congress in no longer in power and Sonia Gandhi did not hold any post in the United Progressive Alliance government. “If the Congress was in power, this would have gone the Bofors way but it is a different case today,” remarked a former Congress minister.
Unlike Rajiv Gandhi who went on the defensive when the Bofors controversy erupted, the Congress today is on firmer ground. The fact that the UPA government cancelled the helicopter deal, recovered the money from AgustaWestland and ordered an enquiry against the firm has enabled the Congress to launch a counter-offensive against the BJP. It is in a position to question the Modi government about its laxity in pursuing the investigation which was ordered by the UPA government and why it has failed to track down the bribe takers even after two years in office.
On the other hand, the Congress has charged that the Modi government had continued to do business with a firm which was in the process of being blacklisted. As a result, the Modi government has been forced to issue lengthy explanations in response to the barrage of Congress allegations. This battle will be renewed in Parliament when defence minister Manohar Parrikar makes a statement on the helicopter deal on Wednesday.
“The problem is that people like AK Antony who have credibility are not articulate and those who are articulate, lack credibility,” said a senior Congress leader.
Even as it waits for Swamy to strike again , the Congress is feeling emboldened because no other opposition party has come out to support the BJP on the AgustaWestland case. It was a different story when VP Singh accused Rajiv Gandhi of taking bribes in the Bofors gun deal. The entire opposition, including the BJP and the Left parties, joined him while its MPs even resigned their seats in Parliament to lodge their protest against the Rajiv Gandhi government.
However, all those who banded together in the late 1980s have had stints in power both at the Centre and in the states and most of them are vulnerable on the issue of corruption. “The dynamics of state politics….local issues dominate in an election,” remarked a senior opposition leader. “Many of us who resigned on the issue of Bofors actually lost in the elections.,” he recalled. “In Andhra Pradesh, for instance, the Bofors scandal was overshadowed by the anti-incumbency against the NTR government.”
But most importantly, the political landscape has changed dramatically since the Rajiv Gandhi government was dethroned in 1989. It is not corruption but the BJP’s divisive political agenda which is the central issue today. And that is what is keeping most opposition parties from rushing to support the BJP.