It is being called the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Bofors moment. On Friday, former French President François Hollande’s said that the Indian government had given manufacturer Dassault no choice but to work with Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence as a partner in the Rafale deal, opening the gate further for allegations of big-ticket corruption against the Modi government. Three decades earlier, allegations of defence procurement corruption against the Rajiv Gandhi government in a deal involving the Swedish firm Bofors are believed to have played a role in his defeat in the 1989 Lok Sabha elections.
Hollande’s comments was pounced on by the Congress, which attacked not only the BJP but also gone for the jugular, directly accusing the prime minister of corruption. However, other parties in the Opposition have either not reacted as strongly – or failed to react at all.
‘My PM is a thief’
In 2015, the Modi government discarded a deal that involved India buying 126 fighter aircraft from Dassault Aviation, a French plane manufacturer. Instead, India was to import 36 aeroplanes. Critics accuse Modi of paying too much and for including Anil Ambani’s Reliance Group as a domestic partner over Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, a defence company owned by the Indian government. While the Modi government maintains that it had no role to play in selecting Reliance Group, the recent statement by Hollande seems to indicate otherwise.
The Congress has attacked the BJP on this even before Hollande’s statement. In August, Rahul Gandhi said that Modi had done the deal to benefit “his friend” Anil Ambani even when the latter “has never made an aeroplane in his life nor has he ever taken a contract for defence”. On Friday, Gandhi picked up Hollande’s allegation and ran with it. “Thanks to François Hollande, we now know he [Modi] personally delivered a deal worth billions of dollars to a bankrupt Anil Ambani,” said the Congress president. On Saturday, he called it a “surgical strike on the Indian defence forces” carried out jointly by the “PM and Anil Ambani”. On social media, the Congress even carried out a “mera PM chor hai” campaign, calling the prime minister a “thief”.
The rest of the Opposition, however, were not as strident as the Congress.
In Tamil Nadu, MK Stalin of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam said that the prime minister is “accountable to the people of India” and a “full-fledged enquiry should be ordered to find the truth”. Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam Party – which has of late been extremely antagonistic to the government – only went so far as to say that “PM Narendra Modi should answer to the people of the country on the revelations made by former French president Francois Hollande on Rafale Deal”. The Shiv Sena, an ally of the BJP which has been very critical of the party of late, also asked Modi to clarify the matter.
The Samajwadi Party called for a parliamentary probe and the Aam Admi Party demanded that a special session of Parliament be called to discuss the issue.
Significantly, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee – who is seen to be in the running for prime minister – did not name Modi at all. “The price of petrol, diesel and gas is increasing everyday. In the name of demonetisation, they have siphoned off several crores. The party [BJP] is running on several crores of rupees. New information about the Rafale deal is emerging everyday,” Banerjee said.
The Janata Dal (Secular), Bahujan Samaj Party and Biju Janata Dal were yet to react bymore than two days after Hollande’s statement hit the press.
The only exception to these tepid reactions has been the ones from the Rashtriya Janata Dal. The party chief Lalu Prasad Yadav called Modi “guilty”, leader of the Bihar Opposition Tejashwi Yadav accused him of lying and the Bihari party matched the Congress in bluntly calling him a “thief”. The rest of the Opposition either did not comment, did not name Modi or did not directly accuse him of corruption.
Slow and steady
One reason for this wait-and-watch strategy could be that earlier attacks on Modi have tended to backfire. In 2007, the Congress’ “merchant of death” label on Modi – then Gujarat chief minister – for the 2002 Gujarat riots was seen as having helped the BJP. Later in 2017, the Aam Admi Party dropped its strategy of directly attacking Modi after electoral reverses in Punjab, Goa and Delhi. Some members of the Opposition – chief here being Odisha’s Biju Janata Dal – might seek to enter into alliance with the BJP after the Lok Sabha elections and would not want to go so far as to accuse Modi of corruption even while they might attack other members in the BJP.
The other factor at play might be that big-ticket corruption makes news but it seems to do less to affect voter behaviour. One study found that a large proportion of the 2014 Lok Sabha electorate had never even heard of corruption under the United Progressive Alliance in spite of the issue dominating the media. The same study found that even people who did know about the alleged scams did not use them as a factor in deciding who to vote for. A piece by a team of political scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, United States argued that it is local corruption that actually affects voter lives and consequently their votes. As a result, most parties have till now, stuck to bread-and-butter issues such as inflation rather than to take the risky path of accusing the prime minister of big ticket corruption.