AgustaWestland scam: Narendra Modi’s anti-corruption mojo is restored with Christian Michel deportation

The extradition of Christian Michel — the man central to the political payoffs in Rs 3,600 crore AgustaWestland chopper scam — is an important political victory for BJP. The development turns on its head the corruption narrative just at the right time for prime minister Narendra Modi. It also puts Congress under huge pressure. In one stroke, Rahul Gandhi’s offensive posture on Rafale will now be deemed as defensive. His accusations will become excuses.

The more headlines Michel generates in media, the more ammo will the BJP get in hitting the Congress right where it hurts. That is because the British national — a fugitive from Indian law — is not a run-of-the-mill fixer. He is the middleman in a murky deal, the trail of which allegedly leads right to the doorstep of 10 Janpath.

But to understand better if and whether Michel’s extradition affects electoral trajectory, it is worth noting the dynamics between politics and corruption in India.

Any corruption case involving politicians in India, especially those occupying high offices, has two dimensions. One is obviously legal, where law enforcement agencies painstakingly gather witnesses and evidence to prove their cases in court. This process carries on for decades and given our broken criminal justice system that has remained largely unreformed even after seven decades of Independence, resolution is slow and often unachieved.

Even if a politician is convicted and imprisoned after due process of law, he or she may turn the penal action into political martyrdom in “people’s court”. Given the ambiguous attitude that Indian electorate has towards criminals in politics, reinstatement is not an impossibility. Look at jailed former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav’s political trajectory.

 AgustaWestland scam: Narendra Modi’s anti-corruption mojo is restored with Christian Michel deportation

File image of Christian Michel. PTI

In his research-oriented book When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics, author and Carnegie fellow Milan Vaishnav notes that "34 percent of members of Parliament in India face ongoing criminal cases, and 21 percent face serious cases. These numbers have been increasing, both at the national and state level, over the past few election cycles.” Milan puts it down to weakness of Indian institutions which, he says, has allowed criminals to work within a democratic setup and fill the gap left the government in delivering services.

While this is a reality, there is a second dimension where fallout is swift. This is the game of perception, and it is arguably even more important than the legal dimension. When a politician or regime is perceived to be corrupt and faces a swirl of corruption allegations, it may adversely impact the fortunes of the politician and his/her party. One need not wait for formal pressing of charges or proving of the allegations in court of law, the buzz in media and political discourse is perceived to be enough evidence of culpability.

Here, too, the eventual reinstatement through “people’s court” is not impossible, but that is a long-drawn process. The immediate political repercussion, especially in an election season, is unfavorable. At least that is one of the lessons from 2014.

This game of perception is so potent that it may pierce the armor of politicians who have made incorruptibility a key plank of their mass appeal. In a country where corruption in high places is commonplace, even unverified and wild allegations are deemed to be enough to convince the public that a leader is corrupt. Facts are considered superfluous.

This is the logic that drove Congress’s high-octane Rafale campaign against the NDA. Rahul failed to furnish an iota of evidence but merely by repeating accusations of bribery and procedural lapses in public and inside the Parliament, Congress has been successful in creating an air of suspicion around the Rafale deal and BJP has been forced into a defensive corner. Media, for instance, refers to Rafale as a “controversial deal” even though Supreme Court is yet to find any “controversy”.

What happens in Supreme Court, though, is another story but Congress gameplan on Rafale was incumbent on a notion that this “air of suspicion” around Rafale is enough to nullify the prime minister’s image of incorruptibility. It hopes to reap political dividends from this fallout.

It was important for BJP, therefore, to issue an effective counter to Congress’s charges in the game of perception, where technical details of a defence deal between two governments are considered too complex for public consumption in electoral rallies. Michel’s extradition gives Modi a simple and effective narrative.

The wheeler-dealer central to the multimillion-dollar AgustaWestland helicopter deal is alleged to have paid kickbacks worth €56 million to a certain “political family” in India going by his purported handwritten notes that describes Sonia Gandhi as the “driving force behind the VVIP chopper deal”. Michel, of course, has denied having written those notes but that is incidental.

Modi now gets the chance to send a message to the electorate that it is due to the painstaking effort of India’s intelligence wing, probe agencies and his political iron will that a fugitive who was hiding in the UAE to avoid Indian law has been dragged back into India. If Michel sings, those behind the curtains will quake in their boots, no matter how “high and mighty” they are.

Modi didn’t take long in pressing home the advantage. Just a few hours after Michel was escorted to India by CBI officers from UAE, Modi told a rally in Rajasthan’s Sumerpur that government has brought back the “rajdaar (confidant) Christian Michel from Dubai, and it remains to be seen the deep secrets he (Michel) will unveil…"

A few hours later, in another rally in Rajasthan’s Dausa, Modi said: “you must have read it in the newspapers by now that we have caught a secret-keeper of the chopper scam and brought him here. The entire family [Gandhi family] is now scared of the things he will reveal."

While Michel gave Modi an antidote to Rafale, the developments in London may work further to his advantage. Liquor baron Vijay Mallya, another fugitive from Indian law charged with fraud, money laundering and facing extradition, coincidentally offered to repay “100% of the money” that he owed to banks years after trying every trick in the book, including escaping to the UK, to avoid doing so.

Mallya’s statement has been quickly attributed to nervousness. Michel’s fate might have made him think that an extradition isn’t an impossibility. All these contribute towards restoring Modi’s anti-corruption image.

Conversely, Congress seems to be betraying its nerves. A rattled Rahul sought to counter questions on Michel by repeating Rafale allegations. It adds to the impression that Congress has been caught on the backfoot. We have surely not heard the last of AgustaWestland controversy and it remains to be seen if the CBI is competent enough to prove its case in court. Initial reports suggest that may be more difficult than it sounds.

There is no denying, however, that Michel’s extradition has restored Modi’s mojo at an important time. Expect him to take the game to his rivals.​

Updated Date: Dec 06, 2018 14:45:27 IST