A price has to be paid, and has to be seen to be paid, if mainstream political parties are to recover ground

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By brazening it out against graft allegations, our netas are mocking common decencies.

By Ashok Malik
Contributing Editor

IT IS extremely unlikely that India Against Corruption, or the political arm it has promised, will win too many votes or even a single seat in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. It goes without saying though that at the current juncture, it is winning a perception and media battle against the political class. Each time a politician is caught for some discrepancy — even if by the media or other activists — the IAC and Arvind Kejriwal are quick to adopt the issue and use it to bolster their argument about a collusive, corrupt cross-party system.

As an example, take the controversy over shell companies that have funded BJP President Nitin Gadkari’s Purti Group. This was not a revelation of the IAC. It was the product of media stories. Similarly, the alleged bribes received by Virbhadra Singh from a steel company, while he was the Union steel minister, and the retrospective dressing up of his income tax returns to possibly show this money as incremental “agricultural income”, were uncovered by the media. In both cases, it is likely that political rivals — the Congress in Gadkari’s case and the BJP in Singh’s — facilitated journalistic investigation and provided inspired leaks.

Even so, such is the mood in the country, it has been easy for Kejriwal and his colleagues to jump on the bandwagon and appropriate the Gadkari and Singh allegations. This indicates the waning credibility of the political establishment. Of course, it can be argued politics will return to a degree of normality as elections approach. It is nobody’s case that the IAC can influence poll results in Himachal Pradesh or Gujarat, for instance. Also, taking the long view, the BJP may well believe the spate of corruption scandals will eventually hurt the Congress more.

IN THE interim, the political system is being wounded. This phenomenon may be exaggerated and overdone but it is nevertheless a reality. Politicians themselves are not helping matters by attempting to brazen it out. When Digvijaya Singh says the Congress has evidence of wrongdoing against the children of LK Advani and AB Vajpayee but will never use it, he doesn’t raise new suspicions about the BJP’s veterans or even appear a mature, nonacrimonious political practitioner. Rather, he seems to confirm the idea, which sections of the public have developed, that New Delhi’s political elite comprises selfserving, mutually back-scratching fixers. If there is proof of wrongdoing, it must be brought out — not covered up.

Likewise, when Kejriwal made his charges against Gadkari, there was some debate about exactly how serious and politically damaging they were. However, the BJP chief did himself no favours when he publicly dismissed the accusations as “chillar” (a small matter, loose change in Mumbai slang). There is a certain dignity to the conduct of public discourse that people expect. If politicians cannot deliver it, they will pay the price.

In today’s gladiatorial atmosphere, the price has to be paid, and has to be seen to be paid, if mainstream political parties are to recover ground. In the coming days — not months or an unspecified extended period — some things need to be done. For the BJP, a second term for Gadkari as party president is now not a realistic option. For the Congress, the process of penance needs to be broader. As a start, irrespective of the verdict in Himachal Pradesh, Virbhadra Singh has to recuse himself from public office (and the chief ministry) till his income records are sorted out.

In the capital, the UPA government’s reshuffle, long promised as imminent, should be used to remove ministers under a cloud, such as Sriprakash Jaiswal, the coal minister, and Salman Khurshid, the law minister. They may or may not be guilty of criminal conduct, but given the murk and their irresponsible pronouncements, perhaps, they need to be sent off the field to demonstrate the party’s intent.

Finally, the corporate affairs ministry and the various regulatory bodies that will look into Gadkari’s shell companies and financial dealings need to adopt the same rigour in regard to Robert Vadra’s companies. True, one is a politician and the other is not. Yet, purely as businessmen, they have a few very similar transactions to explain. All of this will not undo all of the doubt and ill will, but at least a beginning would have been made.

Ashok Malik is Contributing Editor, Tehelka. 
[email protected]

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