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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Lalit Modi row: PM Narendra Modi should speak up

A government is always one scandal away from losing political control. Narendra Modi should speak up.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta |
Updated: June 20, 2015 8:26:40 am
Narendra Modi, Sushma Swaraj, Lalit Modi, bjp government, modi government, Vasundhara Raje, yoga day, lalit modi row, lalit modi sushma swaraj row, lalit sushma Controversy, Pratap Bhanu Mehta column, ie column, indian express column Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj in New Delhi on Friday. (Source: PTI photo)

In yoga, silence may be a path to enlightenment. In politics, it is often a sign of evasion, complicity or cowardice. The prime minister’s silence, so far, on the burgeoning Lalit Modi scandal is beginning to carry the whiff of all three. Either the silence is a way of evading the issue, hoping it will go away under the weight of some other event. Or it signals complicity, in this sense. No one has remotely suggested the PM’s own impropriety in dealings with Lalit Modi. But his silence will signal complicity with the vast web of patronage and corruption that has produced this crisis in the first place. And it is cowardice, because a PM who staked so much on leading from the front, who taunted Manmohan Singh for his legendary silences, has been rendered speechless. The PM needs to come clean on the issue soon. Understandably, you need to ascertain the facts as best you can, but in politics, timing is also of the essence.

On the face of it, the accusations against Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj are hardly trivial. Raje is being accused of helping Lalit Modi, who was an investor in her son’s company, evade justice and then trying to hide these facts from Indian authorities. Swaraj’s culpability may amount to indiscretion, breach of propriety and a lapse of judgement. One can even regret the fact that of all the politicians on whom the finger of suspicion points, Swaraj is the one in the line of fire. But in the larger context of demands over creating a government where laws are not bent for the powerful, where the personal and the institutional are separated, these issues are important. In any case, politically, the bar for what counts as culpability was set by the BJP itself in its attacks on the previous government.

But if these accusations are not convincingly refuted, and so far they have not been, the damage to the government will be immense. One should be wary of media trials and selective leaks, though the BJP can hardly complain of being unfairly treated. But the previous government was done in by its lack of credibility, in part fostered by evasive silences. And politics is all about credibility. Think of the enormous amount of political capital the BJP will lose by not dealing with this issue forthrightly.

Narendra Modi’s first-year pitch for his government was that this is a government without scams. It is easy to imagine another politician with Narendra Modi’s sense of invective retort: But it is a government of scamsters. The PM risks losing the perception war. Sure, these allegations are not nearly on the scale of many previous government scandals. In fact, there is almost a naiveté reflected in the way in which Raje and Swaraj have drawn suspicion on themselves. But the PM needs to understand: Indian cricket has become the most potent symbol of the cosy and sordid nexus between business and the state. If you were serious about cleaning up government, you would begin by breaking this nexus. This has to be done at two levels. First, at the level of appropriate laws and investigations. But the second is for party leaders to signal that they will not tolerate senior party colleagues maintaining close ties with the dirty business of sport in a way that is bound to taint them. This association cuts deeply across party lines and casts a shadow on the reputation of more prominent politicians than one can list. Most citizens wish they had given to their constituents the attention they give to cricket.

Lalit Modi’s individual claims can be contested. But there is a deep truth in his long-distance taunts to the Indian system. He may eventually pay the price. He has shown how easy it was to make an entire political class so dependent on him through the business of sport. PM Modi promised a government that did not do business as usual. He could make a start by getting his prominent colleagues to withdraw from the politics and business of cricket. The fact that there is not even a remote change in the politics-cricket relationship under his government signals complicity and comfort with the status quo.

It also points to a problem he has: In politics, the rule seems to be, don’t get caught in public perception. But there will be many who will rightly see the singling out of Swaraj and Raje, two substantial and differently admired women politicians, as somewhat unfair, when a large section of the BJP, Congress and NCP leadership has been responsible for making cricket a sordid business. Cleaning up is easier said than done. When the networks of complicity are vast, you don’t quite know what will happen when one thread is pulled. This is exactly the problem the government is also facing in cleaning up the banking-big business nexus. How the PM handles the issue will be a test of his courage and political craft. If he chooses to make Swaraj and Raje resign, he will have to ensure that the resignations are not seen merely as sacrificial offerings, but are the beginnings of a clean up that holds other politicians responsible as well.

The BJP perfected the art of using this kind of issue to create a parliamentary logjam. The monsoon session is going to be significant for this government. It has again handed the Opposition a big issue on a platter (which is why I suspect political analysts who see this as inside sabotage are being overly speculative). The infractions, if true, may be small in comparison with other scams. But they are a potent crystallisation of the question of whether anything at all has changed in the systematic relationship between business and politics. Political parties may decide to limit how much of a song and dance they make about this, because this is a chain of investigations that could drag many other politicians down. Either the season for washing dirty laundry will again be upon us. Or, if this is hushed up without a convincing resolution, it will begin to feed into a general disenchantment with the government. There are minor rays of hope on the economy, but the mood is still anxious. Different constituencies, from veterans to farmers, are close to agitational mode. The PM should remember that, in India, any government is always one scam, one agitation and one season of economic slowdown away from losing political control. It needs to come clean quickly.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express

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