Saturday, 27 October 2012

Will BJP choose Jaitley, Swaraj or Modi? (PO)

By M D Nalapat

Fighting elections in India has become a high-cost matter. A successful political organisation needs an extensive machinery within each constituency to ensure that the names of supporters get included in voter rolls. As yet, because of the absence of biometric identification, it is still possible for bogus voters to fill electoral lists. In some parts of India, there are many more registered voters than there are people actually living in the areas covered. In every election, a huge spike in voting is seen to take place as soon as polling opens at 8am.

In reality, few go that early to cast their ballots, so that most of the names of the so-called “early voters” is fake. Certain political parties have mastered the methods of doctoring electoral rolls and ensuring heavy ghost voting for their candidate, so that election after election they return to power, despite an abysmal record of governance. Another way in which voting can be twisted to favour a particular political party is by tampering with electronic voting machines. Especially since the surprise 
success of the Congress Party in the 2009 polls, a considerable body of scholarship has concluded that such machines are subject to fraud.

Because fighting an election has become so expensive, those with 
lots of money at their disposal have a huge advantage over others. The extra boost given by loads of cash ensures that politicians once elected immediately start making money for the next poll. Most make much more. Those holding high political office in India are characterised by affluence on a significant scale. Many start businesses which leverage their political contacts and power.

This immunity from facing allegations of impropriety ended when Arvind Kejriwal,a former income-tax officer, went public on a slew of charges against Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law, Robert Vadra. After being attacked by the ruling party as a “BJP agent”, Kejriwal next went after BJP President Nitin Gadkari, a former nonentity who was appointed to the party’s top spot because of his closeness to the Rashtriya Swayamseval Sangh (RSS), a Hindu organization that is the backbone of the BJP.

Because he himself is from Nagpur, the headquarters of the RSS, it has been easy for Gadkari to ingratiate himself with the leaders of that organisation. However, they do not seem to have carried out an adequate investigation of Gadkari before sponsoring him as BJP President in 2010 and in ensuring that the party’s constitution was recently amended to permit a second term for the party chief. It was clear that this move was carried out so that Gadkari would be in charge of the BJP during the next general elections, due in mid-2014. As Party President, he would have a decisive say in 
ticket distribution as well as in the formation of alliances with regional parties. The RSS leadership believed Gadkari when he described himself as a person with “social conscience”. What they failed to realize was that Gadkari was more a businessman than a politician, and that from the time he was given ministerial office a decade ago, he began making money, a lot of it.

After the Vadra and Gadkari revelations, media in India have abandoned some of their earlier refusal to print or to broadcast critical stories about top politicians. Part of the reason is fear of harassment, as also the threat of defamation suits. Recently, a former judge of the Supreme Court has been awarded damages for defamation of $20 million, a verdict upheld by the highest court in the country. The offense of the television channel involved was to show a photo of the judge in a 
report about another judge. Very soon, the error was detected and rectified, but the former judge sued, and the verdict has had a chilling effect on the media, which is now nervous lest they go bankrupt by paying huge damages for errors that are routine in the newsroom and usually quickly rectified. However, because of the public pressure for more information about the misdeeds of people at the top, the media in India have begun to highlight at least a few of the charges against both Vadra and Gadkari.

Although not known to the RSS till the scandal struck, a propensity to 
make money has been part of Gadkari’s character for a long time. He sought to induct a politician of less than savoury repute, Abu Singh Khushwaha,into the BJP just before the Uttar Pradesh assembly polls, thereby damaging the party’s probity plank. Earlier, he had presided over an alliance in Jharkhand state between the BJP and a party with a dodgy reputation since the 1990s,the Janata Mukti Morcha. Recently, when tasked with the selection of a Rajya Sabha (Upper House) member from his home state of Karnataka, the BJP President chose a businessman rather than party veterans such as Ram Naik or Jaywantiben Mehta. Despite all the talk about simple living, Gadkari routinely uses chartered jets to fly, including on occasion while abroad. His lavish lifestyle resembles that of another high flyer, United Breweries chairman Vijay Mallya, whose parties in locations across the world are legendary for their extravagance and fun-filled schedule. That such an individual was the nominee of the RSS has affected the reputation of an organisation whose leadership themselves live austere lives.

Judging by the avalanche of charges against him, it is clear that Gadkari will have to quit. The two strongest contenders to replace him are Leader of the Opposition (Upper House) Arun Jaitley and Leader of the Opposition (Lower House) Sushma Swaraj. What the BJP rank and file want is different. They seek to annoit Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as BJP President once the Gujarat election verdict comes on December 20. Although many in the media and within the BJP itself disagree, the perception of the base of the party is that Modi can take the party past the 200-seat mark in the next general elections, so that it will be impossible to prevent him from becoming the PM nominee of the party. Should Gadkari continue in office till his term ends in January, the chorus for Narendra Modi may grow louder within the BJP.

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