A section of the BJP leadership is ruing a decision it took in March 2011 to not go for the jugular with the Robert Vadra-DLF sweetheart deal.
Last week, Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan hogged the headlines as they obtained a match-winning free hit on the Vadra-DLF deal, even though the original story had been done by The Economic Times 18 months ago. It was open to any political party to exploit the issue, but the BJP muffed an easy chance. It is now trying to catch up and present a united face on the subject. But, internally, questions are being asked. Should the party not have taken the opportunity to score anti-corruption brownie points last year itself when the Congress was on the ropes?
Here is the inside story on how things unfolded in the BJP after The Economic Times broke the story in March 2011. As soon as the story was published, senior leaders in the BJP began discussing how far they should go in raising the issue. Would it be fair for the BJP, as the principal opposition party, to raise an issue regarding a private person? How far should the party go on this? Should it go ballistic or just make a few routine noises?
Along with these discussions, the party made further enquiries on such transactions involving Vadra and some others. A formal notice for discussion was given in the Lok Sabha by Nishikant Dubey. In the Rajya Sabha, Leader of the Opposition Arun Jaitley made his intentions clear.
But then came two internal meetings, of the Core Group and an Executive Committee of the BJP parliamentary party, which in any case informally meets every morning whenever Parliament is in session. There was a clear conflict of opinion among the top party leaders.
This is where the BJP dropped the ball.
Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj and former party Presidents M Venkaiah Naidu and Rajnath Singh were of the opinion that the BJP's fight was against Sonia Gandhi and the Congress. It should not extend the battle to the personal family domain - and especially daughter Priyanka and son-in-law Robert Vadra. The argument was that even if there was a clear case of misuse of political connections, there was no government agency involved in the deal. A certain private company was helping a private individual. Was the party in a position to prove that there was a quid pro quo, as was done in the case involving Swan Telecom promoter Shahid Balwa and DMK chief M Karunanidhi’s daughter, Kanimozhi, in the 2G scam?
There was also talk that since the BJP wanted to be seen as a responsible opposition party, people may not like these kinds of allegations coming from it. There was also reference to Atal Bihari Vajpayee's dislike for personal attacks. What probably held the BJP back was the fact that in 2004, the party's personal attacks on Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin ultimately boomeranged on it.
There was, however, no final decision to not pursue the Vadra case, but Arun Jaitley was given the responsibility to gather more facts. Information was sourced from various quarters, official and private. The files prepared on Vadra are still there, but they were never spoken of in public forums.
Enthusiastic BJP MPs were simply informed by the leadership that the Core Group had decided not to raise personal matters.
The Lok Sabha Speaker, on 15 March, rejected Nishikant Dubey’s notice demanding a discussion in the House. Dubey initially pleaded that there was a precedent, when charges of a similar nature were discussed in 2001 against the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya. He was advised by the party not to press the matter further after the Speaker had rejected his notice.
Dubey told Firstpost that this happened in the midst of budget session. "We had already stalled the winter session on our demand for a JPC in the 2G scam, and it would not have gone down well if we had stalled the House, this time on Robert Vadra. So we then let it pass.”
Another BJP MP Chandan Mitra agrees. “It was all right for the party not to have raised the issue. We are a responsible party and till such time we have clinching evidence of a quid pro quo, we could not have done that.” But then he makes a distinction between raising the issue and demanding an inquiry. “Yes, based on those reports we could have demanded an inquiry then, like we are demanding an inquiry now.”
Given the media and public space that Kejriwal has occupied post his Vadra disclosures, the BJP is busy seeking moral positions for failing to drive the agenda in 2011.
However, it is certainly true for Arvind Kejriwal, a hit-and-run mission on Vadra posed fewer dilemmas than for the BJP. He had nothing to lose from it. As an interloper in the political arena, he needed something sensational to make his mark. The BJP now consoles itself that this option was not open to it, "given the level of public scrutiny responsible parties" are subjected to.
But questions are still being asked inside the party. Was the party overcautious? Did we hand the platform to an outsider when we could have taken the stage with it?
As the principal opposition, the BJP is always wary about allowing others to occupy its space. It is now fretting about what could have been.