It was 22 May 1991. My summer holidays were on. And I was at my grandfather’s duplex flat in South Delhi. I had woken up very late. It must have been around 10.30am. As soon as I came down to the lower level, an uncle, who has since become an Art of Living guru, told me that Rajiv Gandhi had been killed late last night (he didn’t use the word assassinated, that I remember very clearly).
Given his penchant for practical jokes, I thought that he was pulling a fast one on me, early in the morning. Those were the days before cable television became a part of our everyday lives, and so I picked up the Hindustan Times newspaper in order to verify whether he was really speaking the truth.
And as it turned out my uncle wasn’t lying. Rajiv Gandhi had been assassinated by a human bomb at 10.10 pm on 21 May. “Bofors killed him,” was a random remark I heard during the course of that day. But since summer holidays were on, I had better things to think about than Bofors and how it killed Rajiv Gandhi.
This entire incident came back to me while reading an excerpt of an upcoming book titled Decoding Rahul Gandhi written by Aarthi Ramachandran. She wrote: “Sonia writes in Rajiv that Rahul would telephone from America, “consumed with anxiety” about his father’s security arrangements. She says Rajiv’s specialised security cover was withdrawn after he became leader of the opposition and it was replaced with a force not trained for this specific task. Rahul, who had gone to the US in June 1990 to start his undergraduate studies at Harvard University, insisted on coming back to India at the end of March 1991 for his Easter break. He accompanied his father on a tour of Bihar and was “appalled to witness the lack of elementary security around his father”. Sonia says that before going back to the US, Rahul had told her that if something was not done about it, he knew he would soon come home for his father’s funeral.”
Something did happen to Rajiv Gandhi a couple of months later and Rahul had to comeback from Harvard for the funeral.
Rajiv Gandhi had taken over as Prime Minister of India after the assassination of his mother Indira by her bodyguards. Riding on his honest image and sympathy for his mother, the Congress party got around half the votes polled and more than 400 seats in a Lok Sabha with 545 seats.
In 1987, the Bofors scandal came to light and tarred the honest image of Rajiv Gandhi. Bofors AB, a Swedish company, had supposedly paid kickbacks to top Indian politicians of around Rs 64 crore to swing a $285 million contracts for Howitzer field guns in its favour.
The impact of this on the Congress party was huge. It lost the 1989 election to an alliance of Janata Dal and the Bhartiya Janta Party. Rajiv Gandhi had to become the leader of the opposition. His security was downgraded and he was assassinated two years later. So in a way Bofors killed Rajiv Gandhi.
But if one takes into account the size of the scam, at Rs 64 crore, it was hardly anything in size compared to the scams that have come into light over the last few years. The coal scam. The telecom scam. The Commonwealth Games scam. The Adarsh Housing Society scam. The Devas Antrix scam. And so on.
Each one of these scams has been monstrous in proportion to the Rs 64 crore Bofors scam. There has been a surfeit of scams coming to light since in the second tenure of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance started. These scams would have been on for a while but they have been coming to light only over the last couple of years.
The Canadian American economist John Kenneth Galbraith has an explanation for this phenomenon in his book The Great Crash 1929. “At any given time there exists an inventory of undisclosed embezzlement. This inventory – it should perhaps be called the bezzle – amounts at any moment to many millions of dollars. In good times people are relaxed, trusting, and money is plentiful. … Under these circumstances the rate of embezzlement grows, the rate of discovery falls, and the bezzle increases rapidly. In depression all this is reversed. … Just as the (stock market boom) accelerated the rate of growth (of embezzlement), so the crash enormously advanced the rate of discovery.”
In an Indian context, the economy and the stock market were booming between 2004 and 2008. 2009 was a bad year. Things recovered a bit in 2010. And have been looking bleak since the middle of 2011. And it has been since then when all these scams have been coming to light. Galbraith’s explanation clearly works here. When things were good the scams were being created and as things turned around, all the scams have been coming to light.
But the bigger question here is will the people of this country remember all these scams (and more that may be highlighted in the days to come) by the time the 2014 Lok Sabha elections come around? One Bofors scandal running into a few million dollars was enough to put Rajiv Gandhi out of power and even take his life in the end. But will all these multi-billion-dollar scandals carry enough weight in the days to come? Or will they just become background noise, leading to people not bothering about them, while deciding who to vote for in 2014?
As Umberto Eco (an Italian author) and Jean Claude Carriere (a French scriptwriter) write in This is Not the End of the Book: “But an abundance of witnesses isn’t necessarily enough. We witnessed the violence inflicted on Tibetan monks by the Chinese police. It provoked international outrage. But if your screens kept showing monks being beaten by police for months on end, even the most concerned and active audience would lose interest. There is, therefore, a level below which news pieces do not penetrate and above which they become nothing but background noise.”
Isn’t India going through the same situation right now when it comes to scams? There is a race on among various sections of the media to highlight more and more scams (and rightly so). News channels talk about scams all day long. The front pages of newspapers are full of it. And so is the social media. So will a surfeit of scams make us immune to them?
I don’t have hard and fast answers to the questions that I have raised here. But I do have this lurking feeling that all this scam talk everywhere might just end up benefiting the Congress-led UPA government, rather than hurting it. Or to put it in a better way, it might not hurt the Congress-led UPA as much as it should.
Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org