PNB scam: How BJP lost the political narrative and ended up with full ownership of a Congress legacy

Forget when the swindling took place or when it was finally detected. The Rs 11,000 crore Punjab National Bank (PNB) scam, estimated to be the biggest-ever financial fraud to have hit the Indian banking sector, is likely to complicate BJP’s chances in a crucial election season.

The reason is simple — in the great game of perception management in politics, it has ended up owning full proprietorship of a UPA-era mess.

It matters little that a swindling which germinated in 2011 and carried undetected for so long was finally unearthed last month. It matters little that the entire auditory system and banking regulatory mechanisms couldn’t detect the exploitation of a glaring loophole for years. It matters little that even the RBI miserably failed in its role as the banking regulator. It also matters little that government investigative agencies are now conducting raids, issuing lookout notices and attaching properties of the alleged perpetrators.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

What matters is that BJP has already lost the political narrative – that it let yet another scamster escape with tons of public money.

It affects one crucial area where the BJP-led NDA could claim moral superiority over the Congress-led UPA – financial fraud. For all its perceived and actual shortcomings, the Narendra Modi government enjoyed a ‘clean image’, and managed to largely steer clear of controversies. The Opposition tried hard to implicate the government repeatedly over Lalit Modi, Vijay Mallya or even the Rafale deal. For instance, Congress, which still carries the scars of UPA-era swindling, termed demonetisation the ‘scam of the century’.

Yet these accusations failed to fire public imagination and consequently bombed at the political ‘box office’ because the narrative wasn’t strong enough to breach Modi’s shield of incorruptibility. This may change.

There are two aspects to every scam that erupt in public discourse. One is the operational aspect. It includes granular details of perpetrators, enablers, sidelights and (invariably) political benefactors in the ‘value chain’, along with the role played by regulators. These details play out over a considerable period of time and unfold as the case proceeds in the judiciary. The denouement is often delayed, and in some cases, never comes.

The second is the political aspect. This is the swift public adjudication of guilt. These quick conclusions do not depend on any regulatory, judicial or even media scrutiny. All it needs is compression of facts into a simple yet appealing conclusion, and the narrative is set. There might be gaps of logic but these are of little consequence. What matters is whether the narrative is “convincing” enough. It is the political aspect that sets the narrative, and often decides outcomes in electoral battles. The side that gets the narrative right, wins. Congress should know.

There are many discrepancies in the Congress narrative. For instance, while taking aim at prime minister for being in the same frame with Nirav Modi, Rahul Gandhi and Congress forget to mention that there was no “meeting” between the two and that the tycoon had gone there on his own. It is also inexplicable why the prime minister, who according to Congress is involved in the scam, would make it difficult for himself by appearing in the same frame with a fugitive from law.

The fact is, timeline makes it evident that Modi’s visit to Davos took place on 23 January, two days before PNB stumbled on to the fraud post the retirement of the conniving employee.

The fact is that the swindlers have been gaming the system since 2011 when Manmohan Singh-led UPA was in charge and may have already siphoned off large sums by the time NDA was voted to power.

The fact is that public sector banks frequently fall prey to con jobs and generate mountains of non-performing assets because they are poorly governed — an unfortunate side-effect of the failure to initiate bank reforms.

The fact is that while Congress is laying the entire blame at BJP’s door, it cannot escape culpability because the system of crony capitalism that emerges in most of these cases is a Congress legacy.

The fact also is that if appearing with someone in the same frame is culpability, then Rahul Gandhi may have implicated himself in the scam, if a former Congress leader’s accusation is true.

These little discrepancies, however, are subsumed by the larger narrative because of a single fact: that Nirav Modi, his family members and associates have slipped away. This triggers the Mallya flight in public memory and reinforces the impression that the government, for all its stated intentions, has been unable to net the swindlers.

Out emerges a straightforward narrative — that billionaire Nirav Modi, the man who has been accused of defrauding Indian banks to the tune of Rs 11,000 crore, has been allowed to leave the country’s shores. The optics of a fat cat living the high life abroad after looting crores of public money while the average citizen is hounded for a missed instalment are deeply damaging.

The second development that bolsters the Congress narrative is a complaint letter that was ostensibly sent to the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) in 2016 requesting a probe into the financial dealings of Nirav Modi and his associates. The complainant, according to media reports, received an acknowledgement that PMO has escalated the complaint to Registrar of Companies (RoC). The complainant Hari Prasad told The Quint that “no one ever contacted me from any investigating agency. I only received an email from the ROC that my matter has been closed after due investigation.”

The Congress has claimed that the PMO, the finance minister and the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) did not act firmly on the complaint to stop the designer-businessman from fleeing India.

The question Congress should answer is what stopped it from holding a news conference against government’s “inaction” if it believed that the charges had merit. Why did the party sit quiet for nearly two years?

Yet these questions pale before the larger political narrative. Nirav Modi has escaped, and the BJP despite its painstaking attempts to clean up the UPA-era banking mess, now finds itself stuck between the twin stools of connivance or incompetence.

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Updated Date: Feb 16, 2018 07:30:59 IST

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