After a week defending Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah’s son, Jay Shah, following questions about his business dealings, the ruling party has decided to go on the offensive. Last week’s strategy included a Cabinet minister insisting that Jay Shah had done nothing wrong and the businessman filing a Rs 100-crore defamation case against The Wire, which published the original story about some of his companies. But this only ensured that the headlines about Amit Shah’s son spread further. On Tuesday, the BJP decided to attack the Congress by bringing up Robert Vadra.
“Why is the senior leadership of the Congress silent on the Vadra matter?” asked Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman at a press conference.
Vadra is the son-in-law of Congress President Sonia Gandhi. During the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, press reports alleged that his businesses had gained massively from his proximity to the government. The BJP used stories about these alleged dealings as part of its campaign in the run-up to 2014’s Lok Sabha elections, insisting that it would drive out the culture of dynasty and investigate Vadra’s businesses.
Sitharaman was drawing attention to a story, first reported on by NDTV in 2016, suggesting that Vadra had links with Sanjay Bhandari, a fugitive arms dealer against whom India had issued a look-out notice earlier this year. “[Congress] needs to answer on the relationship between arms dealer Sanjay Bhandari and Robert Vadra,” she said. “Their silence would mean they accept the charges against Vadra.”
Vadra & Shah
This tack seems to make sense. The allegations against Vadra seem much more concrete than the reports that have emerged so far about Jay Shah, whose company saw a 16,000-fold increase in revenues in the year after Narendra Modi came to power, even as it also recorded a small loss. Though the BJP under Modi seems to have done very little to pursue the cases against Vadra, their campaign approach of constantly bringing up “damaadji” (son-in-law), helped cement the general impression that the Nehru-Gandhi family were personally dishonest, even as major corruption allegations against the Congress-run United Progressive Alliance had emerged.
But it is actually the huge differences in the cases that makes bringing up Robert Vadra a political mistake for the BJP. Very little is known about the Jay Shah matter. The Wire report pointed to a huge spike in revenues for one of his companies in just one year and raised questions about other loans his companies received. There are bits of information that perhaps need to be examined, but nothing in the way of clinching evidence. Vadra’s case has gone much further, with detailed investigative reports pointing out what appear to be alleged benefits. These are now being examined by investigative agencies.
By almost explicitly drawing a connection between the two, the BJP could end up shooting itself in the foot.
Both Sitharaman and BJP spokesperson GVL Narsimha Rao made oblique references connecting the cases. Rao said the Congress, if it felt the allegations were false, should file a defamation suit – which is what Jay Shah did against the Wire. Sitharaman insisted that simply because Vadra was a “private citizen”, he was not immune to questioning, since Vadra is linked to the Congress leadership. This may have been a reference to Congress’ defence of Vadra when allegations against him first emerged, but it also echoed a threat from Jay Shah’s lawyer in response to queries about his businesses, saying “Jay Shah is a private citizen doing his legitimate business.”
The Congress made the connections much clearer. “The vicious witch-hunt and vendetta against Robert Vadra has continued for 41 months by Modi government. They are in power at the Centre, Haryana and Rajasthan and not a single wrongdoing, violation of any law or a criminal misconduct has been established,” party spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said at a press conference. “An unnerved and running scared BJP is on a ‘save Shah Jada’ mission... Nirmala Sitharaman is on an agenda of diversionary tactics but they will never succeed.”
The “Shah Jada” reference, meaning Amit Shah’s son here, is also a direct response to criticism by BJP and Modi of the Congress, when they refered to Rahul Gandhi as the “shehzada” or prince.
Vadra has, for a while now, been an albatross around the Congress neck. While Rahul Gandhi has, improbably, managed to reinvent himself over the last few months, and the Congress has begun to take advantage of the adverse economic conditions to attack the government, Vadra – at least from a narrative perspective – seems beyond redemption. The best the Congress can do, as evident here, is to say that more than three years into Modi’s tenure, not much has happened to the cases against him.
But by pitching Vadra as the equivalent to Jay Shah, even if they are not explicitly saying so, the BJP is handing Congress an easy way out. It has a weapon with which it can attack the BJP on two key fronts on which it put itself up on a pedestal: corruption and dynasty. While it may think it is attacking the Congress by bringing up Vadra, it also seems to be suggesting that it is no better. A huge part of Modi’s image, and that of the BJP under him, is that of a larger-than-life administrator willing to give up everything for the sake of the nation. If the son of his own right-hand man is turned into the BJP’s own Vadra, that halo will dim.