Unlike 2014, Robert Vadra strategy will likely implode for BJP as optics lie overwhelmingly on Congress' side

It was interesting to see Congress strategy around Robert Vadra as he appeared before the Enforcement Directorate to answer some questions on alleged money laundering related to properties in the United Kingdom. This was the first time Priyanka Gandhi's husband has faced questioning from any central investigating agency. The ED grilled him for more than five hours on Wednesday and interrogated him again on Thursday. The interrogation is part of ED's probe into Vadra’s alleged possession of illegal foreign assets. While the investigation, questioning and court proceedings will continue, what is of immediate import is the political fallout.

The political fallout will depend a lot on timing, which is of essence in politics. It was 2014 when the buzz around alleged irregularities in Vadra’s real estate business first started growing. The BJP, led by the then prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, hurled barbs at Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law and ran a major campaign around Vadra’s controversial land dealings in the lead up to the elections. From there, it has taken nearly five years and a directive from a city court to bring Vadra into the interrogation room.

What has changed in these five years is Congress strategy, which tells us how the larger political game has evolved around this development. When the hullabaloo around his land dealings in Haryana and Rajasthan first broke out during the UPA years, the Congress tried to downplay the issue and distance itself from the controversy. The high command (a euphemism for the Gandhi family) remained silent while the party insisted that Vadra was a “private citizen” and his business — while being proper and legal — was his alone and the party has nothing to do with it.

This maintenance of an arm's length from Vadra's business dealings — that had come under political, media and public scrutiny — was Congress' core strategy. It was driven perhaps by a belief that the Gandhi family needs to be insulated from charges of corruption that were levelled against Vadra by Congress’ political rivals or activist outfits such as Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan-led India Against Corruption (IAC) that in October 2012 alleged that land deals struck by Vadra with real estate giant DLF were in return for 'political favours'.

 Unlike 2014, Robert Vadra strategy will likely implode for BJP as optics lie overwhelmingly on Congress side

File image of Priyanka Gandhi with husband Robert Vadra.

Cut to scenes in 6 February, 2019, of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra — the freshly minted Congress general secretary in charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh in Lok Sabha elections — dropping her husband at ED’s doorstep for questioning and telling media that "the entire world knows what is happening."

The strategy is different. And it makes sense. In 2016, the BJP took issue with Sonia’s defence of Vadra against allegations of financial wrongdoing. A party spokesperson had commented that the comments by Sonia, then Congress’ president, exposes the "farce that Vadra is merely a private citizen. It has been established that he is the Gandhi family and the Gandhi family is him."

By dropping her husband at ED's doorstep and claiming that "she stands by her husband", Priyanka was sending several messages at once. On one hand, it was a declaration that the Gandhi family is longer defensive about corruption allegations against Vadra. This aggressive move is aimed at taking the sting out BJP’s campaign strategy. It is almost throwing a challenge to the BJP to "do its worst" in targetting Vadra. On the other hand, it is also a political signaling aimed at building a narrative that Congress is sure of Vadra’s innocence and all the interrogation and questioning is nothing more that malicious persecution and witch-hunt conducted by the agencies at the behest of the ruling party.

Incidentally, Vadra had earlier secured anticipatory bail that immunises him from any arrest till 16 February. The Congress must have also factored in the sympathy that would be generated from images of Priyanka accompanying her husband in a tough time for the family, and the media frenzy around her will do the rest.

At the other end of the spectrum, lies the BJP. It very well understands that while the optics may have been on its side in 2014 when corruption allegations against Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law had developed into a storm, five years down the line the allegations are little more than a damp squib. There has been a perception and general consensus that had Vadra done anything really wrong, the BJP-led government at the Centre might have been able to nab him by now.

Instead, this last-minute interrogation by the ED — when elections are upon us — smacks more of political opportunism than an impartial investigation into the alleged irregularities of Vadra. It is this crucial change in equation that has emboldened the Congress to go all out and be aggressive in its ‘Vadra strategy’ instead of playing on the backfoot.

The allegations against Vadra are old. A 2014 investigative report by The Wall Street Journal had thrown up how Sonia’s son-in-law made speculative purchases of arid agricultural land in Rajasthan 2009, shortly before the UPA government at the Centre announced plans to promote large-scale solar-energy production. Vadra, according to the report, "continued buying land, and in 2011 the (then Congress-ruled) state, too, announced solar incentives. The value of the land Vadra bought soared sixfold within three years, a state record of land transactions shows."

The newspaper found that during the decade “Vadra’s in-laws held sway in New Delhi, the 44-year-old with a high-school education and no experience in property development amassed a large real-estate portfolio.” This meteoric rise has never been fully explained, and so-called investigations have come a cropper. To these charges, fresh allegations have been added that Vadra own several luxury properties in London, and those have been purchased through absconding arms dealer Sanjay Bhandari.

There might be a case still against Priyanka's husband but the delay in investigations and the last-minute intensity will aid theories of political conspiracy. Central investigative agencies have suddenly stepped on the gas on Aircel-Maxis, (former Haryana chief minister) Bhupinder Hooda’s 'illegal' land deals, Vadra’s case or the Saradha, Rose Valley chit fund scams but this late rush instead of stating NDA's statement of intent on pursuing cases of big-ticket corruption in high places, lends more to the narrative that BJP is “misusing” these institutions for political ends. Whether or not that impression reflects reality is irrelevant in the larger political game. The momentum has shifted. BJP’s half-clever strategy on Vadra is unlikely to bear fruit this time.

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Updated Date: Feb 07, 2019 16:03:46 IST