If Rajiv Gandhi has become an issue in this election, his son is to blame. For months he has gleefully yelled ‘Chowkidar chor hai’ without proof. It is a bad idea to charge someone with being a thief without providing evidence, and much worse if the man charged is the Prime Minister. Rahul Gandhi’s reasons for believing that more than half the money of the total contract to buy Rafale fighter aircraft was ‘put in the pocket of Anil Ambani’ are flimsy. When reporters from this newspaper pressed him for details and proof in an interview last week, he had no answer.
Reckless charges in politics usually provoke a harsh response. And, it came. Narendra Modi said, in a campaign speech, that the ‘naamdaar’ should remember that his father had become prime minister as Mr Clean and ended up as Mr Corruption Number 1. A tasteless remark, but true. In 1989, Rajiv Gandhi lost the election because he was seen as corrupt by ordinary, rural Indians who made up ditties about the ‘son-in-law of Italy’. The Congress party has never explained why the best friends of Rajiv and his wife, Mr and Mrs Quattrocchi, were bribed in this deal. Nor has there been a credible explanation for why Rajiv did not make public the names of those bribed in this deal, even after Bofors officials came to Delhi and offered to give them.
Having said this, it is important to remember that the BJP has its own explaining to do. When a BJP government came to power in the Nineties under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, why was the Bofors investigation not pursued with sincere determination? Why was the case against
Mr and Mrs Quattrocchi made so poorly by the Indian government that extradition requests never held up in a foreign court? Ottavio Quattrocchi would have been extradited to India for trial if it had been. But, whoever advised the Congress president to continue charging Modi with corruption should have reminded him that the ghost of Bofors still lurks in the shadows of 10 Janpath.
Alas, his advisors are not wise people. His current Guru Number 1, Sam Pitroda, added to Congress problems by making one of the most thoughtless, offensive remarks I have ever heard. Accosted by TV reporters last week and asked about the 1984 pogrom against the Sikhs, he said, “OK 1984 happened, so what?” He seemed to forget that the people of Delhi vote today, and it is in the streets of this city that more than 3,000 Sikhs were burned alive by mobs incited by Congress leaders. He also forgot that Rajiv Gandhi justified this pogrom. Others did not. So clips of that shameful speech went viral on social media.
Rajiv Gandhi has become as much a player in this general election as his children. Inevitably, the Prime Minister started dishing out dirt in a way that he has hesitated to in the past five years. So came the story of the INS Viraat being used as a holiday cruise ship by the Gandhi family for their Christmas vacation in Lakshadweep. Retired Naval officers have tried valiantly to defend Rajiv, but if you read details of that holiday published in this newspaper last Friday, it becomes very clear that there was misuse of a warship and Navy choppers.
The INS Viraat story reminds voters in the last two phases of this interminable election that a poor chaiwallah is up against an arrogant prince. It reminds them that the prince was brought up thinking of India as his personal fiefdom and that the only reason he is fighting so hard to win it back is because he wants his royal privileges restored. Modi has exploited this well in every interview he has given in recent days. But entitlement is much despised in today’s India anyway.
While travelling during this election I have for the first time heard ordinary people in small villages speak of how wrong it is that the doors of politics are open only to those who come from privileged families. For the first time, I have heard people speak of how despicable it is that political parties have become private limited companies. One reason why Modi remains hugely popular in the vast hinterland of rural India is because he is seen as a man who is working for the country and not his family.
There was a time when the Gandhis could win elections on their vaunted charisma. That time has gone. So when Priyanka Gandhi describes Modi as “the most cowardly and weak prime minister I have seen in my life”, as she did last week, and sneers at his supposed obsession with “my family”, she seems not to know how much it helps Modi. If he becomes prime minister again, it will have a lot to do with the Congress party misjudging the national mood.
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 12, 2019, under the title ‘Tales from an older time’. Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh