The past week will be seen as a milestone in Indian history. Lalu Prasad Yadav, one of the most famously corrupt and once-powerful regional politicians, is losing his Lok Sabha parliamentary seat after today being sentenced to jail for massive embezzlement. This followed an astonishing public outburst last Friday by Rahul Gandhi, heir apparent to the leadership of the Congress Party and the prime minister’s post, who opposed a government move to protect the regional power broker.
Three questions arise from these two events. The first is the extent to which Gandhi was defying not just prime minister Manmohan Singh but also his mother, Sonia Gandhi, the Congress leader, and Ahmed Patel, her closest adviser and political manager, when he burst into a party press conference on Friday and denounced a government ordnance that would have protected Yadav as “complete nonsense”. The ordnance should, he said, “be torn up and thrown out“. Today he added: “My mother told me that the words that I used were strong. In hindsight, I feel maybe my words were wrong…but the sentiment I felt was not wrong”.
The second is whether Rahul is capable of following up his highly commendable though equally controversial act of political guerrilla warfare with more sustainable moves to clean up the country’s politics and governance – or are his drive and behaviour too erratic and unpredictable for him to be capable of continuity? Often in the past he has dived into situations and controversies but then not followed them up, disappearing from public view for days and weeks. Currently he is campaigning around the country for coming elections.
The third is whether Yadav’s (left) sentencing today is just a one-off, or will legal action against politicians with high-level connections in notable cases such as 2G telecoms and the Commonwealth Games now be pursued so that they too go to jail without protection from the top of the government and Congress Party. Another Congress politician, Rasheed Masood, was on Tuesday sentenced to four years in jail, and will lose his Rajya Sabha seat, after being convicted of fraudulently nominating undeserving candidates to medical colleges while he was health minister in a 1990 government.
The most significant remark made by Rahul last Friday was that “if we want to fight corruption in this country, whether it’s us, the Congress Party, or the BJP, we cannot continue making these small compromises because, when we make these small compromises, we compromise everything”. This meant that he considered his mother and her advisers, and the cabinet, had gone too far with such compromises when they decided to protect Yadav by introducing the ordinance quickly before a verdict on his corruption case was announced on Monday.
Criminalisation of politics
For decades, politics and the maintenance of political power has provided an excuse and a cover for the gradual criminalisation of politicsto such an extent 30% of the members of parliament elected in 2009 had criminal charges pending against them, half of them for serious offences such as rape, murder, kidnapping and corruption. The roles of democracy, governance and institutions, which were lauded 20 to 30 years ago as India’s special strengths, have been progressively undermined and replaced by arbitrary powers wielded, often corruptly, by individuals, be they ministers, bureaucrats, policemen, or regional politicians.
Rahul Gandhi seems to understand this and wants to make changes, unlike his mother and Manmohan Singh who have presided over a highly corrupt ruling party and government and have made “small compromises” such as keeping corrupt politicians in the cabinet so that their parties would continue to support the coalition government.
What is not clear is how far Rahul had or had not tried to make his opposition known while the bill and the ordinance were being considered, nor whether he was ignored by his mother and her advisers. Also not clear is what it was last Friday afternoon that propelled him into the undignified action of using his authority as vice president of the Congress Party to invade a party press conference and condemn a cabinet decision – while the prime minister was in Washington, about to meet President Obama. Also curious is the fact that President Mukherjee was receiving complaints about the ordinance and was, it is assumed, wondering whether to block it at just the time that Rahul spoke out.
Yadav and 45 others including senior bureaucrats and politicians were convicted this week of embezzling Rs9.5bn (now approx $150m or £94m) that should have been spent on buying cattle fodder when he was the state of Bihar’s chief minister in the mid-1990s at the head of the Rashtriya Janata Dal party. Yadav only promoted his own Yadav backward caste, and he mis-ruled the state for 15 years with his wife Rabri Devi (she took over the chief minister’s post when he went briefly to prison early in the case). The court – located in Ranchi, capital of the state of Jharkhand that used to be part of Bihar – today also ordered Yadav to pay a fine of Rs2.5m.
The case has dragged on through the courts for years, but became politically sensitive when the supreme court ruled in July that members of parliament convicted of crimes would no longer be able to retain their seats while they appealed – a process that can take many years in India’s clogged and manipulated judicial system.
Sonia Gandhi has been fond of Yadav, 65, since he supported her in her early days in politics, and he has been part of her Congress-led coalition, serving as railways ministers in the 2004-09 government. She and the party now wanted to help Yadav because it might need his party’s support in forming a coalition after next year’s general election. So the government acted, within the constitution, when it tabled a bill in parliament that would have overturned the supreme court judgement. But this aroused widespread public opposition – and Rahul’s ire – when the cabinet decided on September 24 to implement the change immediately with an ordinance while parliament was in recess.
If Rahul is up to it, the events of the past week could transform his lacklustre political career which has been based till now solely on his dynasty inheritance. Now he has used dynastic authority for the first time to do what he and a large mass of public opinion thought was right on a major issue. The question now is whether he can and will build on that success.