By Rajdeep Sirdesai
Rahul Gandhi was just 17 when the Bofors gun pay-off scandal first exploded, a corruption charge that would tar his father Rajiv Gandhi’s reputation and eventually hurtle the Congress towards defeat in the 1989 elections. Now, three decades later, the Congress president seems determined to extract revenge for his father’s political downfall by making the Rafale aircraft deal a centerpiece of his 2019 election campaign. But is 2019 really going to be 1989 all over again and will Rafale become the Bofors of our times?
Let’s first look at the similarities. Both Rajiv Gandhi and Narendra Modi have headed majority governments that ensured there was no immediate threat to their rule. Both came to power with the promise of being change agents. A strident anti-corruption rhetoric was core to their public image. Both of them found, half way through their term, a measure of anti-incumbency settling in and the charges of corruption surfacing around the mid-term point.
Both leaders have been dragged into similar defence deal controversies where the armed forces requirements are not under question: India in the 1980s needed the Howitzer field guns desperately ( as proven later in the 1999 Kargil war) just as the Rafale aircraft is seen today as an urgent need to reinforce the Air Force’s depleted squadron capabilities. In both cases, a European government has been on the other side of the negotiations (France and Sweden). And typically, in both the instances, there has been a veil of secrecy around the contractual terms that has left governments open to the charge that they have something to hide.
But there are marked differences. Remember the charge of kickbacks in Bofors was very specifically made by Swedish radio first; this was then followed up by a series of detailed investigative reports that very clearly established pay-offs and the presence of middlemen in the deal. So far, there has been no similar money trail established in the Rafale case. The charge for now is primarily of cronyism and the perception that individual businessmen close to the government have got undue benefits from the deal.
Moreover, in Bofors, the then defence minister, VP Singh, dramatically resigned and became the magnet for the sustained Opposition attack on the government. Here, there is no such opposition unity in evidence. The Rafale campaign has been almost solely driven by the Congress even as the regional parties have mostly stayed away from joining the offensive. While an element of anti-Modiism is gradually bringing together a section of the Opposition, the Congress isn’t quite the instant glue that VP’s Janata Dal became in the late 1980s. Nor is Rahul Gandhi still accepted as a natural leader of such an alliance in the making. It is even probable that the business interests of some Opposition leaders are so inextricably tied in with corporate India that they are unwilling to join the anti-Rafale protests.
Which brings us to the central figures in the two controversies. Rajiv Gandhi was not a professional politician in the manner that Modi is, perhaps lacking the cut-throat competitive edge that the present Prime Minister brings to his politics. This, arguably, left him more exposed, especially when his key aides began to desert him at the time. Modi, by contrast, brings an element of awe and fear to his politics. Where Rajiv Gandhi was quickly pushed on the defensive by the allegations, Modi has chosen to brazen it out, supremely confident that his well-crafted persona as a crusader against corruption cannot be dented by his opponents so easily.
Which leads one to a final observation. In 1989, VP Singh succeeded because he was able to artfully position himself as the challenger who could occupy the moral high ground on corruption. Rahul Gandhi is not the incumbent but the baggage of the Congress’s past corruption scandals weighs him down. The Indian middle class embraced VP Singh when he rather theatrically claimed that he had the Bofors pay-off Swiss bank account number in his pocket because he epitomized an anti-establishment spirit that could capture the public imagination much like an ageing activist Anna Hazare did years later. That is a role which the Congress leadership will find difficult to emulate. After all, when you head a party which has been in power for much of the last seven decades, how do you reposition yourself as the angry young outsider and stay on the right side of the perception battle? That question lies at the core of Rahul Gandhi’s 2019 challenge.
Post-script: The Bofors scandal broke in the pre-television era where news agendas could be set by a handful of leading English newspapers. In a more frenzied, cluttered, and perhaps more democratized news environment, marked by shorter attention spans, where today’s breaking news is the next day’s archive, it is uncertain that an issue with a rather convoluted case history like Rafale will have quite the same impact.
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author.
By Rajdeep Sirdesai