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India’s Fight for Transparency Heats Up

By Priya Virmani
November 1 2012





It is just under a month since IAC (India Against Corruption) leader, Arvind Kejriwal launched his political party on 2 October. His few week old tenure as a politician has been marked by three major exposes of which the latest, of the collusion between Indian’s political parties and the country’s largest industrial house Reliance, was yesterday. But arguably the most significant one was that concerning the business dealings of Robert Varda, son-in-law of India’s most powerful politician Sonia Gandhi.

Through the vicissitudes of India’s 65 years of life one thing has remained constant: the Gandhi family, synonymous with India’s largest political party – the Congress, has always remained shrouded in mystery. Their mythical appeal neatly preserved by the Omerta Code. Just to clarify here, though the Gandhi family is often conflated with Mahatma Gandhi, the two are unrelated. While the Mahatma is India’s most legendary freedom fighter; the former is referred to as India’s first political family or India’s Royal Family (either sobriquet of deference would do).

As senior Congressman, Digvijaya Singh said on India’s premier news channel, NDTV day before yesterday – the Gandhis ‘have never hankered for power, they have been in politics to serve’1. Accordingly, the Gandhis, as a clan, have had an illustrious political career, ‘serving’ at the very apex of power. The dynasty has its roots in pre-independent India. The eminent Nehru family led by Motilal Nehru began staking its claim in British India. Nehru’s son Jawaharlal became India’s first Prime Minister. His daughter, Indira Gandhi, was crowned India’s first female Prime Minister. Indira’s son Sanjay, a politician synonymous with India’s emergency when civil liberties were curtailed, died tragically in a plane crash. Rajiv, Sanjay’s elder brother, stepped into the political vacuum left by the premature death of his brother. He went on to become Prime Minister but like in the case of his mother Indira, his political career too was ended by his tragic assassination.

In 1997 Rajiv’s widow, the Italian born Sonia, entered politics and became the Congress Party President. Sonia Gandhi has since become the longest serving President of the Congress in its 125 year history. In 2004 after the Congress won the General Elections, Gandhi, responded to questions

over her Italian origin by way of a grand act of sacrifice – she renounced the post of Prime Minister and nominated the demure, intellectual Manmohan Singh instead. Nevertheless, Gandhi has since retained the ‘top job’ in a power sharing understanding in which Singh takes care of India, administratively speaking, while all political power is wielded by Gandhi.

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Between them, the Nehru-Gandhis have given India 3 Prime Ministers. And India has given them complete deference. A dynastic setup in the world’s largest democracy. But Kejriwal’s expose has snowballed the beginning of the demystification of the Gandhis. Kejriwal’s courage has emboldened others, once fearful, to speak out. As Kejriwal pointed out in a televised interview to Timesnow’s Arnab Goswami , ‘The people of this country are very scared. Infact you will be surprised the day we did our first press conference against Mr. Robert Vadra, two three Editors-in-chief of media houses called me up and they said that they had this information six months back but they did not have the courage to reveal this information. People are scared in this country. There are some people who are holy cows. They are untouchables. You can’t question them.’2 Kejriwal’s team is now being inundated with revelations of impropriety concerning India’s most powerful, coming from myriad quarters – the aam admi, the laymen to those in high office. Till very recently, things were starkly different.

Last year, Sonia Gandhi took a month long sabbatical and went abroad for medical treatment. Her party obediently divulged no details on the nature of her ailment and thereby spurned all questions on her fitness to rule. The pertinent point here was not about Gandhi’s fitness to be in high political office even though it was a valid one. Rather this issue shone an uncomfortable light on how the Indian media bowed low to the unspoken embargo. Speculation, suggestions and bits of news on the matter were released by foreign publications. But Gandhi’s physical fitness is not the most pressing case in point of the Indian media’s deafening silence when it comes to the Gandhis. Their silence was at its loudest post the publication of a story in the Economic Times last year that raised questions on Gandhi’s son-in-law, Robert Vadra’s most hurriedly amassed fortune in a manner redolent of crony capitalism. Yet no media house including the Economic Times itself took the story any further. So it was quietly laid to rest till Kejriwal resurrected it. However, was it really Kejriwal who made the Vadra-DLF cosy connection known? Not quite, as the story of Vadra’s millions having turned into billions by political alchemy, was reportedly known in the capital’s milieu and amongst its journalists. But ofcourse, as Kejriwal noted to Goswami, no one dared the spine to lift the veil of secrecy protecting the Gandhi family, more so when there were indications of impropriety.


So Vadra’s meteoric rise to power, (a saga still unfolding by the day) born of the nexus3[1] between his proximity to the epicentre of power and DLF – India’s realty giant, remained an open secret till Kejriwal broke the Omerta Code, and shouted Vadra’s misdealings from the pulpit, culled from the loopholes in Vadra’s balance sheets filed with the Registrar of Companies. Kejriwal’s fearless act has affected a change in consciousness and for the very first time India is seeing a surge in courage – a courage that is beginning to openly contest corruption as a largesse of power; that has now begun questioning the particularistics of India’s inequities in public discourse, even if it involves India’s most powerful family.

At the Congress end the Vadragate revelations made the party faithful livid and understandably so – the party apex has never before been questioned such. It is an unprecedented fury for unprecedented times. A vociferous response went with the territory but what has this amounted to so far?

Vadra, on his part, took his time to respond and when he did he hit himself with the sledge-hammer of his Facebook blurb. Aimed at his detractors, his comment ‘mango people in a banana republic’,4[2] boomeranged across the country. The bang was felt the loudest when Vadra shut down his FB account. Surely his comment was malodorous, derogatory and condescending but most of all asinine.

Vadra’s own response was preceded by the privilege of top Congress politicians defending him, promptly and vehemently – that he [Vadra] is a private individual, that DLF is a private company. So how can dealings between a private individual and a private company be questioned? It was an obsequious approach on the part of the party’s top brass. But their continued vociferous defence of a ‘private’ individual makes one wonder whether they are Vadra’s lieutenants or India’s elected representatives. Had the Congress party left it to Vadra to respond that might have stolen some thunder from under their opposition’s feet. But alas, every senior Congress Minister who could manage a soundbite in submission to the first family, did so. This appeased the Gandhi Gods (made clear from last weekend’s Cabinet reshuffle – Manish Tewari and Salman Khurshid being unequivocal cases in point) but not the ‘mango people’ – in Vadraesque terms.

Vadra’s extraordinarily facilitated rise is a prime metaphor for the malaise of the system (yes, Vadra, a banana republic!); a malaise that has sorely affected the lives of the ‘mango people’.

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It is absolutely urgent to stem this rot. The IAC has given India a window of opportunity and Kejriwal’s courage, to this effect, is currently being feted. He is being given the moniker of India’s Julian Assange. But applauding Kejriwal is not sufficient. Standing up to the power of the Indian Government machinery and contesting its cases of unimaginable graft that are still coming to light, is a very uphill, arduous struggle, fraught with dangers. It is a marathon not a sprint. The growing clamour for transparency in the execution of public offices and most especially at the apex of power is a crucial tool. The seven year old RTI (Right to Information Act) is empowering this call for transparency. But this is just the start of the dialectical battle as now even the RTI is under threat5[3]. Lasting positive change can only come about with public opinion rising inexorably against corruption and the regimes that encourage it. The pressure exerted by the chorus of India’s one billion plus must be unstoppable, it must be heard in their voice and in their vote – or this entire endeavour will become an archived story. Will the Indian people rise to the occasion in next year’s State elections and the 2014 General Elections and vote not on the basis of caste and religion as has historically been the case? Will they begin seeing beyond the miasma of votebank politics? This remains to be seen. Kejriwal’s courage is leading this fight but only the Indian people can make the waters part.



The views expressed by this writer and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Samosa.

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