Congress, BJP on a level playing field of corruption

It is now clear that both the major parties – the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – will approach the next general election with the ball and chain of corruption tied to their feet.

While the Congress has been weighed down by allegations of sleaze for more than a year, the BJP’s travails caused by the infamy of former Karnataka and Uttarakhand chief ministers B.S. Yeddyurappa and Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank have been aggravated by the latest charges against party president Nitin Gadkari.

What this means is that the electoral contest between the two parties will be on a level playing field where their tainted reputations are concerned. As a result, the conventional wisdom that the Congress – 206 Lok Sabha seats, 28.5 percent votes – will lose some ground while the BJP – 116 seats, 18.8 per cent votes – will gain only marginally is likely to be proved correct.

Since there is little that the Congress can do to refurbish its sullied image, it will have to bank on the Manmohan Singh government’s reforms initiatives to generate an atmosphere of hope in order to tilt the balance, even if slightly, in its favour. Aware that it had left the task of boosting the economy too late, the government will have to work overtime to inject a sense of buoyancy.

Its only advantage is the silence of the earlier critics of the reforms within and outside the party – the “socialists” in the Congress and Trinamool Congress among the allies – although the objections to a National Investment Board by environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan show that hurdles still remain.

However, the fact that the National Advisory Council led by Sonia Gandhi has withdrawn into the background is a sign that there is some a realisation of the harm which its left-of-centre outlook inflicted on the economy, hobbling the government and the party.

But, since an upswing in the economy will take time to manifest itself, notwithstanding favourable indications like an increase in the demand for housing and a rise in the number of people with “good” jobs, according to a Gallup poll, the Congress will have to work much harder to show its resolve to fight corruption – something which is not helped by the arrogance of its members, who threaten to break television cameras if they face inconvenient questions, as Himachal Pradesh chief minister Virbhadra Singh did, or promise to write their political careers in blood, as law minister Salman Khurshid did.

The Congress’s only hope lies in the ever-deepening gloom in the BJP camp. It isn’t only that Gadkari has become embroiled in a scam of his own, there is every possibility that Yeddyurappa will strike out on his own by forming his own regional outfit. In that event, the pride which the BJP took in securing its first foothold south of the Vindhyas – albeit with some help from Janata Dal (Secular) – will be dashed.

Moreover, the BJP will be concerned about the damage which the new regional party will cause to its electoral prospects in Karnataka. In this age of amoral politics, a subterranean link between the Congress and Yeddyurappa, who has occasionally praised Sonia Gandhi, cannot be ruled out. Similarly, another breakaway group from the BJP – former chief minister Keshubhai Patel’s outfit in Gujarat – is expected to inflict some damage, though marginal, on the mother party.

However, the fact that two former chief ministers have become disillusioned with the BJP shows that all is not well with the party. There are also reports that another former chief minister, Vasundhara Raje of Rajasthan, is not too pleased with the BJP.

But, it is the shadow over Gadkari which will discomfit the party the most since it will raise the question of selection of a new chief.

In all probability, the BJP and its friend, philosopher and guide, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), will try to avoid finding a replacement for as long possible because of the destabilizing effect of such a move before the general election. But the charges against Gadkari – links with fake companies, fake directors – have such a sordid air that it will be difficult to protect him for too long.

Besides, it is no secret that he has detractors in the party, who always considered him an interloper from Maharashtra imposed by the RSS to cut the Delhi-based leaders – L.K. Advani, Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley – to size.

Both the BJP and the RSS, therefore, are now facing a dilemma, for, persisting with Gadkari will nullify the BJP’s criticism of the Congress’s alleged corruption while sacking him will rock the party even more than Advani’s dismissal from the president’s post did in 2005. Meanwhile, the RSS may wonder why both its recent choices for the post – Rajnath Singh (who was called a “provincial” by Jaswant Singh) and Gadkari – have created more problems than they solved.

Since the BJP depends on the Sangh Parivar’s organisational prowess at election time, the tremors in the party’s top rungs cannot but have a damaging impact.

By Amulya Ganguli

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