Perceptions are not necessarily realities. In fact, in many a case they are far from realities. But it so happens that in politics, more than in any other sphere of activity, perceptions matter the most and determine the crucial electoral outcomes. A veteran politician that he is, Prime Minister Narendra Modi must have known this political lesson very well. And more than anybody else,
he should have found out by now that he is beginning to lose the battle on the perceptions about the performance of his nearly four-year-old government to his principal political opponent Rahul Gandhi, the Congress President.
But then, as has been pointed out, perceptions are not realities. And therefore, the allegations that Rahul is making against Modi are not sustainable in the long run. However, in the process, until and unless Modi takes some countermeasures, Rahul will continue to score over him, adversely affecting the Prime Minister’s goalposts in 2019. Let us see some of the perceptional battles that Modi seems to be losing.
It is said that crony capitalists are having a wonderful time under Modi’s “suit-boot ki sarkar”. The latest scams involving some of the leading public sector banks, the Punjab National bank in particular, have proved to be very handy in this regard for Modi’s opponents, despite the fact that all “the guilty” have been beneficiaries much before Modi came to the scene. But overall, let us see how “well” India’s top businessmen have fared under Modi.
In order to return bank loans, the Jindal Steel has decided to sell its power plant and 49 per cent shares in its business pertaining to the Railways. The Essar group is offloading majority shares in its steel company and oil-business. The GVK group is about to sell 33 per cent of its shares in the Mumbai airport. It has already closed down its business of road-construction. The DLF group is selling 40 per cent of its land-capital and the famous Mall in Saket, Delhi. The JP group is in serious crisis and prepared to forgo its shares in the Yamuna-Express way. The Tata group is now forced to sell its Corus steel company in Britain and some of its landed properties in Mumbai. Videocon is selling its spectrum (telecom) in six circles. The Sahara group is almost bankrupt, having sold its hotels in London, New York and Mumbai. The Reliance group of Anil Ambani is in a bad state; its telecom market is almost irrelevant now and it is planning to sell 49
per cent of its shares in the production and distribution of electricity in Mumbai. The Birla cement is selling its cement plants and forgoing its stakes in the building-up of roads.
Does the above state of affairs reflect that Modi promotes crony-capitalism? But then that is the public perception. It is true that this perception is not going to last for long, but by then it can unmake the BJP governments at the Centre and in some states.
It may be noted that though Rahul Gandhi is accusing Modi of corruption and irregularities without caring for evidence and established norms/procedures, his Congress party has a very poor record in getting vindicated. One may mention here the much talked about Coffin Gate, Tehelka scandal and Purti scam. The Coffin Scam was a result of the faulty approach adopted by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India’s (CAG) report which alleged corruptions in the purchase of coffins for the dead soldiers during the Kargil war that took place in 1999 between India and Pakistan. According to the CAG, the Vajpayee government incurred a heavy loss of $1, 87,000 in the entire transaction. In this specific case, 500 caskets, each worth $2500, were purchased from Buitron and Baiza, a company based in the United States, rendering funeral services. The CAG presumed it to be 13 times the original amount. However, the ambassadors from both the countries –India and the US – had declared in writing that those caskets had a cost worth $2,768 each. But, when the issue was made into a scam by the Congress, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) investigated the case and filed a chargesheet against three Indian Army officers in August 2009. However, in December 2013, a special CBI court found no evidence and discharged all the accused. The case was closed. And this happened during the UPA regime itself.
The Tehelka scam has been the most ludicrous in India’s history of scandals. A highly partisan and controversial journalist, claiming to be the representative of a non-existent defence firm, traps some officials in the name of procuring a non-existent weapon system and then generalises that the then defence minister George Fernandes and his staff are indulging in corruption, indicating that the proposed deal to buy Barak missiles for the Navy from Israel is one such incident that had witnessed kickbacks. In fact, such heat was generated in the process that the Congress party made the life of the then Vajpayee government miserable and boycotted Fernandes in Parliament. They, along with the partisan journalists, boycotted two commissions of inquiry that the Vajpayee government set up under two respected retired Supreme Court judges – Justice SN Phukan and Justice Venkataswami. So much so that to a great extent the Congress under Sonia Gandhi won the elections in 2004 on the basis of the two scandals of Coffin Gate and Tehelka by successfully building the public perception over misleading and fabricated evidences against the government of the day.
When the Congress-led UPA came to power in 2004, the two judicial commissions were dismissed by the government and everything was handed over for investigations to the CBI, which, in turn, filed a First Information Report (FIR) on 10 October, 2006. But again, nothing concrete emerged. On 24 December, 2013, after investigating for more than seven years, the CBI decided to close the matter as it did not find any evidence on the allegations. And the UPA government was very much there then.
The Purti scam revolved around the Purti Power and Sugar Ltd (now Purti Group) that the BJP leader Nitin Gadkari, then PWD minister in Maharashtra, had floated in 1995. Apparently, in 2010 the company got a loan of Rs 1.64 billion from a firm which allegedly had obtained hefty road contracts under Gadkari’s term as PWD minister. Gadkari’s son Nikhil was allegedly a director with the company (IRB) at the time. Gadkari argued that there was nothing wrong in having contractors invest in one’s firms, but Opposition leaders argued that all this suggests a quid pro quo for political favours granted by Gadkari.
Accordingly, in 2013, the Income Tax Department “discovered” tax evasion by Purti and a judicial commission was set up to look into the charges. This was at a time when Gadkari was about to get his second term as the national president of the BJP. He had to quit the post, a development that suddenly brought Modi to the reckoning as BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. But what happened? The judicial commission concluded that Gadkari had played no role or had no concern with the scam. And on May 13, 2014, the I-T department of Maharashtra cleared Gadkari’s name and gave him a clean chit saying there is no enquiry/investigation presently pending. This allowed Gadkari to successfully contest the election to the Lok Sabha. In the process, two non-BJP leaders were made to eat the humble pie – the then Congress Union Minister Manish Tewari apologised to Gadkari on April 30, 2014, when he was dragged into a defamation suit by the latter; Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal did likewise subsequently in the Delhi High Court.
In fact, many Congress leaders privately agree that but for this mishandling of Purti scam by the Congress leadership, Modi could not have become the prime minister, the argument being that a Gadkari-led BJP would not have allowed the then Gujarat chief minister to nurture a national dream.
Be that as it may, the fact remains that leveling corruption charges against the political opponents may not have been very credible for the Congress; but it proved to be a rewarding political strategy for it in unseating the BJP from power in 2004. And that being the case, Rahul’s charges against Modi, even though seemingly on very weak evidence, may bring his party back to the power in 2019, a la 2004. So everything now depends on Modi himself to nullify the growing perceptions against his government. Because, he has got an utterly incompetent team to handle the media and public perceptions. He needs someone like Prashant Kishore, who played a big role in his victory in 2014, at the earliest. Otherwise, he has to battle it all alone.
By Prakash Nanda