Rahul Gandhi’s Rafale campaign may backfire if he doesn’t clear air around murky land deals

Congress president Rahul Gandhi has been going hammer and tongs at Prime Minister Narendra Modi over alleged corruption in the Rafale deal. Though the Congress and its ecosystem tried their utmost to portray the deal as National Democratic Alliance’s “Bofors”, the lack of a smoking gun or even a hint of money trail have hindered their effort so far. The Supreme Court judgments and Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) reports have been unfavourable from Congress’ point of view. The deal, according to these institutions, is kosher.

Rahul Gandhi’s Rafale campaign may backfire if he doesn’t clear air around murky land deals

File image of Congress president Rahul Gandhi. Twitter@INCIndia

This is the primary reason why the issue has failed to cut much ice among the electorate though the Congress president has left no stone unturned to whip up a narrative. From floating dubious figures, making rather outlandish charges, leveling allegations (sans proof) of crony capitalism to frequently getting his facts wrong — perhaps deliberately so to spice up the narrative — the Congress president has deployed an elaborate playbook to target Modi. And yet, if ‘Rafale’ has not become ‘Bofors’, it isn’t merely because no smoking gun is visible, but also because the credibility gap between the accuser and the accused.

Legitimate questions may be raised against the performance of the Modi government which suffered from no coalition compulsions in its five-year tenure. The Opposition may criticise the government, and rightly so, on issues such as lack of jobs, farm distress, low wage growth, lack of private investment, etc. Debate is inevitable on whether Modi’s hopes of getting a second term will fall in the gap between his promises and achievements.

It is a little difficult, however, to paint the prime minister as a “corrupt”. In the past five years, there have been no allegations of substance against the NDA government on graft. The contrast with the UPA years is stark. This has added to Modi’s image of “incorruptibility” to go with his track record as a three-time Gujarat chief minister when he headed a government largely free of corruption charges.

It is easy to why the BJP has made “incorruptibility” a campaign issue and is trying to bank on Modi’s personal image in a presidential style of campaign. Political rhetoric catches popular imagination only when it is relatable.

Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in a recent blog claimed that Modi’s tenure “will be regarded by future political historians as a turning point where a movement to free India from corruption began. The government and its ministers have conclusively proved that it is possible to run an honest Government in India. Not a single charge of any substance has been made against the Government.”

Conversely, Rahul suffers from a lack of credibility when it comes to corruption. His high-voltage campaign rallies and rhetorical interventions on Twitter paint him as an aggressive challenger to Modi, but his charges against the prime minister come off as insincere. And it isn’t just a matter of getting his facts wrong or leveling accusations without proof. Congress’ track record while in power and the dust of corruption swirling around the Gandhis diminish the Congress president’s ability to claim the moral high ground.

Corruption is a useful tool to use against political adversaries, but it is a double-edged sword that cuts both ways. In December, the Supreme Court allowed the Income Tax Department to proceed against Rahul and Sonia on the 2011-12 tax evasion case in connection with the party mouthpiece National Herald newspaper.  Following that, the I-T department slapped a Rs 100 crore notice on Rahul and his mother in January for tax evasion.

In February 2019, the Delhi High Court bench of Chief Justice Rajendra Menon and Justice VK Rao upheld an earlier order passed in December 2018 by the same court that dismissed Associated Journals Ltd’s (AJL) plea against the Centre’s eviction order and directed AJL, publishers of National Herald, to vacate in two weeks the Herald House in the ITO area due to “misuse” of lease conditions.

According to news agency PTI, the Delhi HC bench held that “the entire transaction of transferring shares of AJL to Young Indian (YI) company, in which Congress chief Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia Gandhi are majority shareholders, was a clandestine and surreptitious transfer of the lucrative interest in the premises to YI.”

As the Gandhis continue to battle these charges and I-T proceedings, fresh allegations have emerged against the Congress president on his involvement in a murky land deal that also connects his sister Priyanka and her husband Robert Vadra. The allegations, if proven, could severely damage Rahul’s credibility since it establishes an indirect link between him and dubious wheeler-dealers such as HL Pahwa, CC Thampi, Mahesh Nagar (all under ED scanner) and controversial arms dealer Sanjay Bhandari, a fugitive from Indian law.

What gives these allegations an entirely new angle is the fact that Bhandari — who fled to London in 2017 when investigations against his business dealings were launched — is close to Robert and through his firm Offset India Solutions had put “considerable pressure” on Rafale-makers Dassault Aviation during the UPA years for a slice of the offset pie, according to a report in Economic Times.

Referring to a recent news report, Union minister and BJP leader Smriti Irani alleged that Rahul and Priyanka purchased land in a deal involving HL Pahwa (who had been the subject of a recent ED raid), and Mahesh Kumar Nagar, who also had a role in land transaction involving Robert, according to a report in The Times of India. The article also quoted Irani, as saying, “Pahwa was lent money by CC Thampi who is "friends" with controversial arms dealer Sanjay Bhandari.”

Congress’ denial saw BJP stepping up the attack, with Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad in a news conference claiming through purported sale deeds of land that the “entire Gandhi family including Rahul Gandhi, Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and her husband Robert had bought land from HL Pahwa.” The BJP called Pahwa a “family retainer” of the Gandhis for facilitating real estate deals.

The BJP wasted no time in claiming that Rahul’s stance against the procurement of Rafale jets “stems from his pursuit not only of individual politics but his personal commercial interests, his personal family interests.”

The charges are of a political nature and must be proved in a court of law, failing which these can be sorted in the category of “political rhetoric”. However, the Congress president has not yet responded to the charges. This opens space for the BJP to exploit.

For Rahul, who has been so vocal about purported corruption in Rafale deal and Modi’s alleged favours to “crony capitalist friend Anil Ambani”, this silence is awkward. The Congress president feels that he has the right to demand accountability from Modi based on allegations alone. He has even called for investigation and “jailing” of the prime minister.

By the same yardstick, therefore, the Congress president should come clean on his alleged dealings and de-link himself from the murky land deals that establish a link between him and a fugitive arms dealer. The longer he remains silent, the lesser will be his moral right to point finger at others.

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Updated Date: Mar 15, 2019 19:39:32 IST

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