Corruption charges

With presidential polls up ahead, BJP promises raids and a ‘reckoning’ for its rivals

Many of the cases against the Opposition leaders are built on compelling evidence, but they are also convenient tools.

In the immediate aftermath of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s massive victory in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, there were calls for the new administration to arrest and go after politicians that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had claimed were corrupt throughout his campaign. Instead, nothing happened. Presumably concerned about accusations of a vendetta, the new government didn’t immediately take on its rivals. Three years to the day of its huge victory though, raids were conducted in 50 different places across the country, and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley promised a “day of reckoning” for Opposition leaders whom he labelled corrupt.

On Tuesday, the Central Bureau of Investigation carried out raids on the offices of Karti Chidambaram, son of former home minister and Congress leader P Chidambaram. The raids were part of an investigation in which Karti allegedly used his father’s influence to get clearance for a foreign investment. The First Information Report in the case claimed Karti had been paid a bribe to ensure the clearance, but does not name any finance ministry officials involved, though it would be easy to ascertain which bureaucrat had been a part of the decision-making.

On the same day, the Income Tax department searched 22 premises connected to the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Lalu Prasad Yadav. The I-T raids were based on information that Yadav allegedly has benami property amounting to Rs 1,000 crore. The former Bihar Chief Minister said on Twitter that he pities such intimidators, but his family has been embroiled in corruption allegations in Bihar over the last few weeks – which some believe is aimed at ending the grand alliance with the Janata Dal (United)‘s Nitish Kumar that is currently in power in the state.

Compelling and convenient

Meanwhile, the Congress’ first family is under scrutiny in the National Herald case. The Saradha scam continues to hang over West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. One third of Aam Aadmi Party MLAs in Delhi are facing various cases against them, with different levels of seriousness. And the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam continues to feel the heat of authorities in Delhi.

None of these allegations are necessarily falsified. Indeed, in some of the cases there is strong evidence that authorities should have acted a long time ago, with the famously sluggish nature of Indian justice acting as a convenient fig leaf. What is, however, evident is that the cases often fall into the same category as the corruption charges that the previous Congress government managed to wield against both former Uttar Pradesh Chief Ministers, Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav.

The cases might have compelling evidence, but they are also terribly convenient for the BJP. Indeed, the most telling of these cases relates to a leader from within the saffron fold. The government allowed the CBI to continue to pursue serious charges against LK Advani, once Modi’s rival within the party, which resulted in the Supreme Court reinstating the case against him in the Babri Masjid trial. This allows Modi to continue sidelining a powerful voice within the party. But it also gives the government a chance to claim that it is not politically influencing enforcement authorities because, if the CBI is free to act against a top BJP leader, they should be free to act against top Congress leaders too.

Political timing

The danger of pursuing cases against popular political leaders is the chance that it might backfire, turning them into victims rather than villains in the public eye. Former Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa, for example, was never punished by the electorate despite serious corruption charges.

Here too the timing is important. There are no popular elections in the next few months that the BJP is unduly concerned about, so there is no question of the Yadav or Chidambaram playing the victim for the masses. Instead, the pertinent elections only involve politicians: President and Vice President polls come up in the next few months, and those are only dependent on MPs and MLAs, not the public at large. Cases against leaders help here, because they can help drive a wedge between parties if some allies don’t want to be associated with a scandal.

“The day of reckoning has come for many,” Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said, even as the Opposition was out in forcing calling this a political vendetta, “they all will be accountable”. How much reckoning is convenient at the moment, however, remains to be seen.

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