India loves tamashas and Delhi loves political gossip, and both forms of entertainment have been in full supply over the past couple of weeks when the reputations of top politicians and others have been publicly attacked, mostly by Arvind Kejriwal (below), a politically ambitious anti-corruption campaigner. This flood of allegations – and the prospect of more to come – has widespread ramifications because it seems to be open season to reveal the suspected wrongdoings of the rich, famous, and powerful, using right to information laws.
A vast proportion of those who run the country’s government at all levels down to villages, plus people in business, are assumed to have done illicit deals during their careers, which they have successfully kept hidden – so far. The main thread running through many of the allegations involves powerful people acquiring land far below market value, often for government projects, and then reaping large profits when the land is sold to private developers that are often involved in corrupt irrigation, real estate and other deals
The main target has been Robert Vadra, a brass ornaments trader who 15 years ago became the son-in-law of Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Congress Party and India’s governing coalition. Vadra has accumulated surprising wealth through land deals in the state of Haryana and elsewhere, often with DLF, a leading well-connected real estate developer.
Other targets include Salman Khurshid (two photos down), the Law Minister, whose usually urbane style collapsed under pressure when his wife’s charity for the disabled was accused, following a sting operation mounted by an India Today group television channel, of misusing Rs1.31 crore ($250,000, £150,000) funds. Kejriwal took up the allegations, and Khurshid said he would fight with “blood”, appearing to threaten him with physical harm and even death. A Congress spokesman advised those involved to be “careful in the use of language”.
Sharad Pawar, a veteran Maharashtra-based politician and government minister who is famed for using his wealth as a big investor in real estate and other business projects, has been accused along with his daughter and other relations, who are also in politics, of various land and irrigation scandals including Lavasa (bottom), a controversial countryside township project developed by the Hindustan Construction group.
Accusations of fraud and crony links, some involving Pawar, have also been made against businesses (including a string of apparently fake companies) associated with Nitin Gadkari, the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who comes from Maharashtra.
Even Rahul Gandhi, Sonia’s son and heir apparent, was dragged into one of his brother-in-law Vadra’s (left) land deals, where it was alleged he too had benefited from under-valued land.
The media has not escaped. Naveen Jindal, an MP and leading steel industry businessman, who has been accused of corruption over coal mining licences, staged a sting on an extortion-seeking television channel, Zee TV. The channel was allegedly offering to abandon a damaging news report if Jindal bought Rs100 crore (approx $20m, £11.5m) of advertisements – a widely practised form of corruption in the Indian media.
Ispat Industries, a company that was owned by a brother of Lakshmi Mittal, the world’s biggest steel maker and has now been taken over by another branch of the Jindal family empire, has been accused by the Hindu newspaper of bribing Virbhadra Singh, a former steel minister who is also accused of falsifying his apple orchard accounts with unsourced income.
The media has leaped with glee on the accusations, accelerating the development of stories and escalating the sense of crisis with continuous coverage on 24-hour tv channels. Many of the stories have already been known about, or suspected, but the media has never had the nerve to publicise them – though the Vadra allegations did appear once in The Economic Times in March last year.
India’s Outlook news weekly magazine ran the Vadra story a week after The Economic Times and mentioned a point that has become headlines in the past few days – that leaders of the Congress Party and the BJP seem to have an understanding that they will not attack the personal affairs, including corruption, of each others’ leaders and their families. Outlook wondered whether the BJP had not taken up the Vadra story because it did not want a counter-punch based on the widely gossiped business dealings of Ranjan Bhattacharya, who is married to the daughter of a close woman friend of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a former BJP prime minister, and is recognised as his foster son in law. Bhattacharya grew from working as a hotel manager to an owner of hotels and other real estate between 1998 and 2004 when the BJP was in power.
Such an understanding not to attack each other has now been confirmed by Digvijay Singh, a senior Congress Party general secretary, who said on India’s CNN-IBN tv channel that Congress had evidence of corruption against Vajpayee, and against his L.K.Advani who was then Home Minister, but would “never use this”.
Currently, Congress leaders have refrained so far from attacking Gadkari outright over his company fraud allegations, though the government’s ministry of corporate affairs has started a “discreet inquiry”. The risk for Congress is a BJP counter-attack on the far more sensitive Vadra accusations.
One significant aspect of the Kejriwal revelations is that he has been prepared to challenge the Gandhi dynasty in public, albeit mainly with an attack on a not-very-respected son-in-law. Since she entered politics at the end of the 1990s, Sonia Gandhi has drawn a much tighter cloak of secrecy and silence around her and her family than earlier members of the dynasty ever managed. She has been criticised publicly, as has her son Rahul who has yet to prove himself as a potential leader, but this has generally been focussed on their political performance, not any suspected corruption.
Dipankar Gupta, a sociologist, has suggested in an article that the Vadra attack indicated the collapse of a “taboo” in Indian politics, though he only used “R for Robert” to indicate what he was writing about and did not use the words Vadra, Priyanka (his wife), Sonia or Gandhi dynasty, choosing instead rather curiously to refer obliquely to a “particular family”.
Yogendra Yadav, a political pollster and pundit and member of Kejriwal’s India Against Corruption organisation, praised the revelations because they had “violated a code of silence observed in Delhi’s corridors of power”.
It remains to be seen however whether taboos and codes have indeed been broken. If they have, the dynasty could face trouble, and Congress’s defeat at the general election due by 2014 would become a certainty compared with the near-certainty that it is now.
Leading Congress government ministers including Palaniappan Chidambaram, the finance minister, and Salman Khurshid leapt to Vadra’s defence on television when the accusations were first made, but they backed off as details emerged of land and property deals that he had struck with loans and other help from DLF. Their silence since then is perhaps more indicative of the dynasty’s attitude to Vadra’s dealings than their early attempts at defence, which they presumably thought sycophantically would please Sonia Gandhi.
Kejriwal has been involved in civic and social campaigns for about 12 years, initially with an ngo called Parivartan focusing on local issues such as governance in a poorer part of Delhi, and on the right to information which eventually became law in 2005. By 2010 he became involved in anti-corruption campaigns and was one of the top activists with Anna Hazare, the Mahatma Gandhi look alike, who lead demonstrations that dominated politics last year Kejriwal has now split from Hazare and is planning to set up a political party.
The second and broader issue is what will happen next and what the revelations are doing to the fabric of India’s government and society, given the pervasive depth and breadth of corruption across government at all levels and the public and private sectors.
It seems unlikely however that these events will change the extortion, fraud, and crony-capitalism that has fuelled India’s economic and commercial success in recent decades, though it might make those involved more cautious. Many of Kejriwal’s leaks and accusations do not stem from any concerted attempt to seek truth and justice. Frequently they come from family or company rivalries or upsets – a family that tires of one of its members, an ex-mistress who feels snubbed, a revenge-seeking sacked employee, or a disgruntled ex bureaucrat are among rumours (not all correct) on the current disclosures.
Shoma Chaudhury, editor of Tehelka, a campaigning weekly magazine, suggests that the accusations against Vadra and leading politicians mean that a moat has been breached and that “something is shifting in Indian democracy”.
Kejriwal’s campaign is certainly significant if it is seen as a second and more focussed stage of last year’s Hazare anti-corruption campaign that drew massive support from India’s angry middle class and was primarily aimed at creation of a Lok Pal (corruption ombudsman), which has not yet happened. Much of last year’s fervour however has been dissipated, and many people are uneasy about Kejriwal’s guerrilla tactics, fearing maybe that their own secrets might be revealed.
Corruption is however now a major topic that cannot be swept away as individual scandals have in the past. But it will take years to introduce the changes that might significantly reduce it. A revamped judiciary (often itself corrupt) is needed so that cases are cleared quickly instead of taking 20 years or more.
Nandan Nilekani a former head of the Infosys information technology company who is introducing a biometric data base for the government, has produced a list of things to be done using technology plus regulatory and institutional reform to change the way government relates with the private sector as a buyer (defence and other equipment and services), seller (such as licences for natural resources) and regulator (telecoms and other industries).
That will be a very long haul.