Corruption is normally an election issue in the minds of Indian voters, but when it becomes a major controversy, it ends up dislodging the government in power. An extremely popular Congress government, headed by the young and dynamic Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, was defeated in 1989 over the issue of Bofors. The party which had won 414 Lok Sabha seats and polled 47.87 per cent votes during the 1984 Lok Sabha polls ended up with only 197 seats with 39 per cent votes. A decade-long Congress-led government (2004-14) got badly mauled by the BJP in 2014 largely over the corruption issue. The Congress won only 44 Lok Sabha seats and its voteshare declined to 19.3 per cent. Now, questions are being asked why a popular government led by Narendra Modi can’t be defeated in 2019 over the issue of the Rafale fighter jet deal? Some people believe that Rafale would seal the fate of this government while others feel this is not an issue over which people are likely to vote in 2019. The Rafale issue can’t put the Modi government in deep trouble, though it has the potential of giving some anxious moments for the government.
We all know that Rajiv Gandhi lost the election only due to Bofors, but I believe the incumbent Narendra Modi-led NDA government can’t be defeated simply over the Rafale issue, and I would like to offer my explanation for that. Though the Congress has been campaigning hard trying to convince voters about the BJP’s — and more so Narendra Modi’s involvement in corruption related to the Rafale deal, it is yet to become as emotive an issue as Bofors was before the 1989 elections. The reasons are simple. At the time of the Bofors controversy, almost all major political parties raised the issue and were united about the matter, charging then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of receiving kickbacks in the Bofors deal. The Opposition parties charged the Congress government on compromising the country’s security and were able to convince large sections of voters.
There is a difference in the Opposition’s campaign now against the Rafale deal. While the Congress has been continuously and systematically campaigning against the government and accusing it of being involved in corruption over the Rafale deal, other Opposition parties have mostly kept silent on this issue. The failure of all the Opposition parties to jointly put the government on the mat on the Rafale deal has prevented it from making Rafale as big an issue today as was Bofors before the 1989 Lok Sabha election.
Second, there is a difference in the leadership at the time of the 1989 Lok Sabha elections and of the present. The Bofors controversy was raised by V.P. Singh, a leader who was finance and then defence minister in the Rajiv Gandhi government, who quit the Congress and the government and charged the Prime Minister with having received kickbacks as he launched his campaign against corruption. It was more convincing for people to believe the charges the former defence minister (V.P. Singh) was then making than those levelled today by Rahul Gandhi, who is not yet fully acceptable as a leader by senior figures in several other Opposition parties, particularly the regional parties. This is in fact one of the principal bottlenecks standing in the way of a full-fledged anti-BJP front. In the late 1980s, on the other hand, V.P. Singh was the leader around whom many leaders cutting across parties rallied around, as he was seen as an honest leader of that time, and received enormous support for his crusade against corruption. At the moment, there is a crisis of leadership: neither is Rahul Gandhi acceptable among leaders of various regional parties, nor is any regional leader (like Mamata Banerjee, N. Chandrababu Naidu, Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav, etc.) acceptable to the leaders of the other parties. In the end, therefore, the BJP stands to benefit from the prevailing situation.
The third explanation of why Rafale isn’t Bofors is the difference in leadership against whom the charges of corruption are being levelled. In the Rafale case, these are being levelled against Narendra Modi, while in the case of Bofors it was against Rajiv Gandhi. There seems to be a big difference in how people perceive the two. While Mr Modi is largely seen as an honest leader, a man who has risen to power from a humble background, Rajiv Gandhi was seen as a man who became the Prime Minister only because he belonged to the Nehru-Gandhi family. While a large section of Indians do admire the contributions of the Gandhi-Nehru family in the nation’s development, there are also other voters who are bitter critics of the family — partly over corruption, but also on other issues. As Mr Modi has been able to keep his family members away from sharing political power even after becoming Prime Minister, people have more faith in his credentials, and the Opposition may find it far more difficult to mobilise public opinion against him in comparison to what was possible against Rajiv Gandhi during the 1989 Lok Sabha election.
Surveys have repeatedly indicated that corruption is not on top of the mind of the Indian voters as they decide which party to vote for except for when it really becomes the talk of the town. The surveys conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in the recent past suggest it’s the biggest concern for less than 10 per cent voters. Voters are far more concerned about unemployment, development, the price rise and poverty. The corruption issue only works as the icing on the cake. It can become a bigger issue in 2019 only if the government fails over development, jobs and price rise. The Opposition is as yet unable to convince voters that the Narendra Modi government has really failed on all these fronts. The day the Opposition is able to convince voters about the government’s failures in these areas, even Rafale will become a much bigger issue than it is at present.