The Congress Party has been exceptionally vocal on the Rafale fighter jet deal, levying charges of misuse of authority and crony capitalism against the Narendra Modi government. Except for the Left parties, the rest of the Opposition has, however, been inexplicably silent. Neither Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav, Mamata Banerjee, N. Chandrababu Naidu, M.K. Stalin nor even H.D. Deve Gowda have taken up cudgels on the issue.
Sharad Pawar, president of the Nationalist Congress Party, is the only one to have broken his silence. But he, quite astonishingly, chose to give a clean chit to Prime Minister Narendra Modi instead of leading the Opposition onslaught as a former defence minister. He later tried to backtrack, but not unequivocally.
One might be forgiven for wondering what the silence of the Opposition parties and the flip-flop by Mr Pawar means, especially at a time when there is talk of a grand Opposition alliance to take on the Modi government in the 2019 general election.
This should have been lethal ammunition for the Opposition parties in their campaign to strike at the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Instead, they seem to have left it only to the Congress and its chief Rahul Gandhi to lead the charge.
The silence of these parties could be because not all regional leaders and parties may feel confident of speaking on a technical and defence-related issue. It may also be that some of the regional Opposition parties want to wait for the results of the state Assembly elections in December before speaking out. On both counts it is up to the Congress to evolve a joint Opposition strategy to launch an effective attack on the government.
This still does not explain Mr Pawar’s personal clean chit to the Prime Minister. Even though he has made a show of trying to retrieve lost ground, there can be little doubt that Mr Pawar has provided tremendous psychological relief to the beleaguered Prime Minister.Mr Pawar, however, has been the real loser of his obfuscation. The clean chit to Mr Modi was so incredulous that his party’s tallest leader in North India, Tariq Anwar, not only resigned from the NCP but also from the Lok Sabha in disgust.
Only Mr Pawar can discount speculation about his own interests or that of corporate houses close to him being involved or whether he acted as he did because of pressure on him and his kin. As a veteran politician, he is well aware that he cannot afford to go with the BJP in 2019 because the BJP governments at the Centre and in Maharashtra face a virulent Maratha agitation.
It is curious, however, that the Rafale fighter jet deal has not as yet caught the imagination of the public in the same way that the Bofors scandal had in the run-up to the 1989 general election. Then the public anger had led to the ouster of Rajiv Gandhi from power. This is surprising considering that the size of the Rafale deal at `59,000 crores is four times the cost of the Bofors deal at `15,000 crores. An ill-informed Opposition cannot be the only reason why the Rafale controversy has not reached its Bofors moment.
It may also be that while the Bofors scam involved a specific sum of money, `64 crores, there is no comparable figure for the Rafale deal. No one can say for sure what proportion, if any, of the offset the money to be spent in India — 30 per cent of the `59,000 crores cost of the Rafale contract — may have gone as kickback to any politician or political party. Clearly, the public impact of a direct corruption charge is much more effective than merely the suggestion of corruption.
Another reason why the Rafale controversy may not have caught the public imagination could be that the volume of reporting which could turn public opinion into outrage is missing. The Bofors scam was broken by the Swedish Radio in April 1987. This was followed by a series of investigative reports by two national newspapers, Indian Express and The Hindu, who took up the issue with dogged determination.
Although the first major breakthrough in the Rafale deal has also come from a foreign source — French website “mediapart.fr” —Indian media houses have failed to follow up with their own investigations. They have neither sent their reporters to France nor commissioned French journaists to carry out investigations or look for whistleblowers from Dassault Aviation to take the story forward.
That critical mass of reportage that could enrage the public on the issue is unlikely to be generated by the Indian media, which has become fairly obsequious. There is also no ground to assume that the French media will step in to make up for the moral shortfall in India.
The Bofors scandal also saw V.P. Singh putting his credibility and political future on the line by accusing Rajiv Gandhi. He resigned from the Rajiv Gandhi Cabinet to take up the Bofors campaign. That this allegation has not been proven till today is another matter, but V.P. Singh’s stance had led to the election slogan “Raja nahin faqir hai, desh ki taqdir hai” (He is not a king but an ascetic, he is the future of the nation).
In the Rafale controversy, unlike V.P. Singh, Rahul Gandhi risks nothing. He is in fact trying to gain some credibility by campaigning on the Rafale controversy. The Congress will clearly have to find a better way of projecting the irregularities and cronyism inherent in the Rafale deal, or else it risks wasting its limited political resources. If it cannot generate critical public opinion on Rafale, it would make better sense to use its political energies to mobilise people on issues of critical importance which they can really relate to —growing unemployment, farmers’ distress, the attacks on the minorities and the unconstitutional and divisive Hindutva ideology of the BJP.