Two things stood out significantly in Arvind Kejriwal’s latest “bombshell” on Wednesday, where he targeted Reliance Industries Limited chairman Mukesh Ambani. For one, even while seeking to paint politicians and businessmen as crooks, he indirectly acknowledged that not all political leaders are corrupt. For another, his exposes are largely about repackaging news that is already in the public domain. It’s the media around him that amplifies his message.
In his Reliance “expose”, Kejriwal named at least two Congress politicians—Jaipal Reddy and Mani Shankar Aiyar, two former petroleum ministers—as upright people who resisted corporate pulls and pressures. They prevented the country from being looted.
The issue of shifting of Jaipal Reddy has been debated in the media and political circles since Sunday’s cabinet reshuffle. Questions were raised about whether Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had fallen prey to corporate lobbying in shunting out Reddy to the low-profile science and technology and earth sciences ministry. Many believed that this was a clear case of demotion for Reddy, an old style socialist, but Reddy kept his cool and gave only standard answers (“it’s the PM’s prerogative”) when asked if he was shifted due to his tough stand on issues relating to Reliance’s Krishna-Godavari gas fields, including production and pricing. That, however, did not silence the issue.
But the issue of demotion cannot be easily denied. Given his seniority, having a cabinet minister to preside over a portfolio that has so far been overseen by junior ministers does raise eyebrows. It was either a case of punishment posting or great faith in Reddy’s ability to push the country’s science establishment to new heights. Kejriwal went out of his way to harness public suspicions to score a big hit.
The BJP had raked up the issue just when Kejriwal was making his allegations, but the media used senior party leader Jaswant Singh’s statement on the issue to make it sound like a response to Kejriwal’s press conference. The BJP probably goofed in the timing of Singh’s statement. BJP spokesman Rajiv Pratap Rudy was at pains to explain the delay and the consequent impression created from it.
Referring to Jaipal Reddy’s removal and the case history of Reliance’s gas pricing issue, Jaswant Singh said, “These are only some of the questions that arise, at present, about this scandalous episode. That is why this change cannot be treated as effected either for greater efficiency of the ministry, or for the welfare of the citizens of India or for national good. In any event, the Supreme Court of India, having given full authority to the government to fix gas pricing in “national interest”, why did the government not act? Which is why the PM must explain, he has a duty to, and we have a right to know.”
The merits of Reliance’s gas pricing could not be adequately highlighted earlier because the BJP chose to focus on Coalgate after the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) gave a report on the issue.
While Kejriwal’s went on a rhetorical overdrive to strike a chord with the common people by repeatedly asking “Who is running the country, the prime minister or Mukesh Ambani?” the BJP could not make political capital out of it. The fact remains that the issue has been in the public domain since the publication of the Radia tapes in 2010. The fall and arrest of the then communications minister A Raja was one of the by-products of that tape. There were several others who fell from public grace. Niira Radia has since then wound up her public relations business but is still introduced as corporate lobbyist.
Kejriwal efforts to play the Radia tapes again, this time to implicate former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s foster son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya in it, were apparently intended to tar the Congress and the BJP with the same brush and carve out some political space for himself. He also sought to even things out: if it was Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra yesterday, today it is Ranjan Bhattacharya. When the Radia tapes were first revealed two years ago, it was believed that Ranjan Bhattacharya was merely talking to maintain his relevance to political happenings after the exit of Vajpayee. But Kejriwal used it to prove something else.
In the end, the politician in Kejriwal sought to link the Reliance gas pricing issue with the impact it may have on power tariffs if the government conceded the corporate house’s demands on the subject. Power tariff is a sensitive issue in Delhi, and Kejriwal wants to use it to milk political benefits for himself when he launches his party.