Modi’s Gambit

After making tall election promises on corruption, the only hope for Narendra Modi to come out of the Sushma-Vasundhara morass is to succeed in delivering on development pledges

Talking about corruption is a favourite Indian pastime. It is a topic that never seems to turn stale, or tire or bore anyone. Someone said the other day that it is the most used or overused word all over India in all its 29 or so official languages. That must be true of the numerous other unrecognised and often unrecorded languages too. At social gatherings, Indians never seem to run out of stories of and about corruption in their day-to-day lives.

I am one of them. Over the years, largely during my three long decades as a newspaper man, I must have heard hundreds of such stories, mostly true and mostly from those who had themselves experienced, witnessed or suffered such corruption first-hand. One such I recall here is particularly relevant to the current Narendra Modi-Sushma-Vasundhara affair. This is from Krishan Kant, the late Vice-President (1997-2002).

Kant’s father, late Lala Achintram (1898-1961), a founding member of the rather austere Servants of the People Society founded by Lala Lajpat Rai in Punjab in 1921, was then a Member of Parliament from Patiala. One day, apparently disconcerted by growing clamour in the country against corruption, he spoke about it to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru during the course of an informal conversation and suggested that he—that is, Nehru—could, perhaps, be more exacting in regard to his ministers. The remark cut Nehru to the quick, and he shot back in anger: “What do you mean? You know what Sardar had told Bapu on this when Bapu had reprimanded him for growing complaints of corruption in the country after independence.” Nehru then told the Lala how Mahatma Gandhi had written a letter to Sardar Patel some time in 1948 saying that he was receiving complaints that the people were getting fed up with growing corruption under Congress rule. Nehru said that when he spoke to the Sardar about Gandhi’s concern, he—that is, the Sardar—shrugged his shoulders and said: “Tell him to give you names of 20 honest Congressmen and promise to him that you will make them all ministers. Let me see where he finds 20 such men!” The reference to the Sardar was, obviously, meant as a putdown for Lala Achintram who was once a Patelite.

If finding 20 honest men who could remain honest even when in office was so difficult then, how much more difficult it must be today. Considering this, it was rather indiscreet and, actually, even plainly naive on the part of Modi to have promised to the people that if voted to power he would end corruption or, in his own words: “Na khaoonga, na khane doonga!” He must be ruing that today. If he were a modest or an astute man, he would have at most promised to combat corruption, rather than to end it altogether. He could have at best promised that while he would himself not be knowingly corrupt, as for others he would act sternly whenever need arose. I mean, for a leader active in today’s India, election promises must be phrased with an escape route open for retreat. In this respect, Modi has certainly been lax, even careless and thoughtless in making and phrasing his promises. He has himself admitted it candidly in regard to the ‘One Rank, One Pension’. He has said that the promise was made without thoroughly studying and comprehending the complexities of the matter.

For a leader active in today’s India, election promises must be phrased with an escape route open for retreat. In this respect, Modi has certainly been lax, even careless and thoughtless in making and phrasing his promises.

The promise to give Delhi the status of full statehood was another hasty and ill-considered promise. Modi and his advisers could not visualise how risky it could be to hand over the seat of the Union government to an utterly unconventional political outfit bent on butting the Union government head -on. Who knows what piquant and even dangerous confrontation could have taken place in Delhi between the Kejriwal administration and Modi’s Central government, if the AAP really had unbridled power in the state. Considering what a maverick he is and how utterly bereft of negotiating skill, he could have very well ordered Delhi Police to arrest Modi and even his entire Cabinet. That would be really funny, if it were not a national disaster. The promise to get `15 lakh into the bank account of every Indian from Switzerland was a greater kneeslapper. How ludicrous! A clear case of a man carried away by a phrase. One can understand a street conjuror making a promise on so grave a matter in such lax terms, but coming from a prime ministerial candidate, it was not even amusing let alone convincing. His people have now been forced to resort to loony verbal contortions to defend him on this score. Frankly, all this was no less daffy than many of Kejriwal’s promises and actions since the last Delhi poll.

Modi is now in a bind over his “Na khaoonga, na khane doonga” promise and the media and the opposition Congress have justly and aptly pinned him down on the subject. He knows he has nowhere to hide and all the defence his men are advancing is too limp to have any effect on public mind or party morale.

He has, therefore, chosen the best course open to him—to go maun in the matter. He knows he has little leeway in all these Sushma Vasundhara cases. If he sacks them or gets them sacked, he will cause a serious upheaval in the party and it may all very well develop into a huge bushfire, which he will be forced to fight at his peril. He will, in that case, have to divert his entire energies and devote all his time to firefighting inside and outside the party. He will then be measured not by what he has done on his development promises, but by how he has failed as an anti-corruption crusader.

Modi, therefore, seems to have decided to keep mum on the matter and wait for the fire to die out on its own, as sooner or later it must. He can in the meantime best devote his energies and time to other larger development and welfare issues. If he succeeds in delivering on these other promises effectively, the corruption issues may soon be overshadowed by the good work he can do. That must be his best hope, and best gambit. After all, how many people today remember the many corruption scandals of Nehru’s time? All that the people remember is that he is the one who laid the foundation of a secular, scientific, modern India. That may not be to the liking of the RSS clan, but they cannot obliterate it from the mind of the people however much history they may rewrite.

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