Deflecting trouble


May 04, 2016

Congress supporters protest against the Bharatiya Janta Party government for taking on Congress chief Sonia Gandhi over the AgustaWestland bribery case, in New Delhi on April 29 (AFP)

The ruling BJP government has used an Italian court’s recent ruling to turn attention away from the Indian Supreme Court’s castigating remarks on the imposition of President’s Rule in Uttarakhand. So, the AgustaWestland bribery case is back in the spotlight.

The strategies that politicians adopt to deflect the spotlight away from the chinks in their own armour have always been interesting.

Many of them, regardless of political affiliation, have played their cards so exceedingly well on this score that Indian political history will be replete with such instances. Until some years ago, it was believed that domain expertise in this area was the monopoly of the then ruling Congress party.

It now appears that the current dispensation, headed by the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) has become even more adept at this game, surprising experts of yesteryears as well. Without doubt, credit is due to the top leadership of the BJP, who have made the act of painting the Congress with a black brush for everything that it has done or not done, their party’s favourite pastime.

To the BJP, the attack is more important than being right or wrong. As is its wont, the BJP has now picked up on an issue which, in the long run, might see a little bit of that black paint fall on its face as well. The latest episode relates to the purchase of 12 helicopters for the Indian Air Force to ferry VVIPs like the prime minister, defence minister and others.

The R35.46bn (RO205mn approx) contract to AgustaWestland, initiated during the regime of the first BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in 1998, was cancelled by the then Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in January 2014. The reason was the arrest of Giuseppe Orsi, CEO of Finmeccanica, the parent company of AgustaWestland.

So, the Indian government used the integrity clause to not only cancel the order but also ensure that all the money that was given as part payment for the purchase of the copters was back in its treasury. At that point of time, there was a defence minister called A K Antony who went out of his way to ensure that the globally accepted norm of commissions in defence deals was defeated. His obstinacy went to such lengths that modern armaments remained out of bounds for the armed forces.

His approach earned him the sobriquet of Saint Antony. Nevertheless, the investigation into the issue of bribegivers at the Italian end continued while the Indian probe slowed down for various reasons. It was not even taken up during the last two years of the BJP rule. Be that as it may, an appellate court in Italy delivered its judgment sometime early last month.

Arms dealers Christian Michel James and his colleague, Guido Ralph Haschke, are said to have admitted to receiving R2.26bn of the R3.85bn meant to bribe whoever was involved in processing such deals. It came also to the notice of that court that out of this total amount, hardly R450mn or so came into India to be paid allegedly to some officials or lobbyists like the cousins of a retired Air Force chief. Who all received that amount is a matter that the investigating agencies are yet to find out.

The BJP very cleverly used, possibly, a paragraph or two of the court verdict to point an accusing finger at the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, her political secretary and another leader for being the recipients of that bribe. And, the basis for this is a note that Michel wrote to Haschke on how to distribute the commission.

All because the note said: ‘Since Sonia Gandhi is the driving force behind VIPs, she will no longer fly in the MI-8. Gandhi and her closest advisors are the people who the British Ambassador should target’. In other words, it meant that some wheeler-dealer imagined that she was the most powerful person who needed to be bribed to get this deal through. It does not say that the amount was paid to her or somebody close to her.

But the BJP did. It painted a new picture to show how the Italian court had held the Italy-born Sonia guilty of accepting a bribe to clear the proposal. More interesting was the fact that none in the media asked the question as to why her party government annulled the contract if that was the case, at the very first instance of questionable integrity.

None even asked how anyone could hold Sonia responsible when the court had only quoted the private note sent by one of the fixers to another fixer as to who should be targeted to get the deal through. In fact, it appears that none has gone through the entire 218 page judgment to see if the court has done what the BJP leaders are alleging.

That she has been held guilty. The language that has been used by the BJP leaders is also smart. One of them has even wondered why the Congress leaders should be hassled so much when an inquiry is being conducted. In short, the BJP has been successful in ensuring that people look at Sonia as somebody who has indulged in Bofors-2. Bofors is the Swedish gun whose purchase during the tenure of Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia’s husband, led to the first corruption charge against the family.

What the BJP achieved by raising this issue was that it diluted the impact of the Supreme Court’s castigating remarks against its government for imposing President’s Rule in the northern state of Uttarakhand. The high court as well as the Supreme Court had held that the federal government had indulged in the un-federal act of displacing a duly elected government by unfair means. The antidemocratic action of the government had also led to the criticism of a President like Pranab Mukherjee.

The President signs the proclamation approving the recommendation of the federal government. This deflection of the spotlight to another issue gave the BJP double advantages. It was able to thwart potential attack in parliament from the Congress opposition.

It also got an opportunity to further damage the reputation of the Congress party as a corrupt one. But, the last word on this copter issue still remains to be said.

Cleanliness is godliness

Major cities as well as metros are facing the worst possible problems of garbage disposal. Cleanliness becomes a sort of dream for its residents. More so, if it is a town which is famous for its temple or a place of worship. But, a drive through some of the holiest of places for the Hindus, particularly for the Brahmins, was a pleasant experience.

The Srirangam temple in Trichy, short for Thiruchirapalli, as well as the temple town of Kumbokonam in Thanjavur district of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, were classic examples of cleanliness. They could well be competing with the cleanest city, Mysuru in the southern state of Karnataka, for the second consecutive year in the country.

The impressive aspect of the area particularly around the Srirangam temple was the way in which facilities had been created to meet the basic requirements of devotees. The street lights, the public toilets and structures built so that devotees can avoid the scorching sun while awaiting their turn for the darshan of the deity are facilities which should be replicated by others as well.

A casual reference to the facilities for the residents and the visitors evoked an interesting comment from the taxi driver. “Sir, but other towns were not represented in the assembly by Jayaram Jayalalithaa though she is the Chief Minister of the state.”

The changes that she brought about in this temple town are talked about with a great amount of respect for Jayalalithaa. If she could achieve this much in a short span of five years in her constituency, surely other peoples’ representatives can also aspire to do the same. Her decision to shift her constituency last time to R K Nagar in Chennai, capital of the state of Tamil Nadu, has made the voters of Srirangam unhappy.

But, to be fair to them, this does not mean that they will not vote for her party’s (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam or AIADMK) candidate. In fact, the current election to the legislative assembly will be first one in which the party will be contesting in all the 234 constituencies. Even the handful of alliance partners are contesting on her two leaf party symbol. In other words, it is Jayalalithaa, popularly referred to as Amma or Mother, is the candidate everywhere.

She is the one who gets the votes for her party and that is what makes her one of the most powerful woman politician in India. Her most popular welfare scheme of providing food through ‘Amma canteens’ at extremely cheap prices as well as providing free rice has made her popular among the poorest of the poor. As one woman put it: “If she returns to power, it will mean that we still have the courage to move around without any fear.”

But, Jayalalithaa’s biggest challenger in the May 16 elections to the assembly is Muthuvel Karunanidhi of the DMK. It means quite a lot for the most powerful woman politician to target only this man in her campaign even though he is touching 93 years of age. It speaks volumes for the capabilities of one of the cleverest of politicians in the country.

And, he continues to campaign for his party. Karunanidhi comes from a movement which is largely atheist. Yet, the interesting aspect is that it was his government which spent the maximum amount of money refurbishing temples in Tamil Nadu.

Tailpiece

The biggest beneficiaries of the competitive politics of Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi have been the people. Both went about increasing the number of eggs for children in the mid day meals programme. Now, children get eggs with their lunch all five days a week. Freebies like mixer-grinder, television sets etc have already been given in previous elections.

Speculation is rife now as to what ‘Amma’ will announce in her much-delayed party manifesto or the booklet of promises. Many say that she may give a choice between a fridge, a microwave or a 50cc two-wheeler for people living below the poverty line to choose from. Said a colleague: “And, we thought people were to choose a leader!!!”

[The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Muscat Daily or Apex Press & Publishing]