Sunday 1 December 2019

Fadnavis inaction on Ajit Pawar recoils (Sunday Guardian)

By M D Nalapat

Had Fadnavis shown greater diligence in bringing Ajit Pawar to book during 2014-19, the NCP would not have secured the Assembly seats it has.

After having spent years excoriating Ajit Pawar for his activities as the Irrigation Minister of Maharashtra, it was a surprise when Devendra Fadnavis ended his 5-year term as Chief Minister without taking any significant action against Pawar. Given the scale of the irregularities within the Irrigation Department, it was as though Ajit Pawar was being protected by Fadnavis. Cynics will say that the banding together of the two men in an attempted power grab last week showed why the former CM of Maharashtra had been so deliberately ineffective in ensuring accountability for a politician whom the former has many times promised to send to prison. In the 2019 polls, that claim sounded hollow, given that Fadnavis spent five years without inflicting even a legal scratch on the resourceful Ajit Pawar. Given the circumstances, it is understandable why the individual who aspires to seize total control of the NCP sought to bring over 36 MLAs from his party to the BJP-led alliance. Once he is fully rehabilitated within his party by a forgiving uncle and made the Deputy Chief Minister of the new combination, as is expected by the media and by others, Ajit Pawar will bide his time and once again strike, this time after being certain that he will be able to bypass his uncle and carry the NCP MLAs to the BJP. There was in hindsight political logic, in the manner in which Devendra Fadnavis protected Ajit Pawar during his term in office as CM. The prodigal who has now returned to the embrace of his uncle can use his formidable political skills to ensure that Supriya Sule be eliminated from the leadership of the NCP. Once he regains high office, Ajit Pawar will use his recovered clout to try and remain protected, this time from the Centre. Both NCP supremo Sharad Pawar and Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray will have to be alert about the possibility of a repeat performance by Ajit Pawar, whose continued escape from going the Chidambaram way hinges on his utility to Devendra Fadnavis, who remains by far the most popular BJP leader in Maharashtra. Ajit Pawar is an ace for the BJP, as is Sonia Gandhi, who tried but failed to prevent the Shiv Sena from forming a government with the support of the Congress Party, but who is sure to direct barbs at the new CM through a constant flow of demands and sniper fire that may be couched in a more sophisticated manner than the darts now raining on Uddhav by the BJP’s social media warriors, but are nevertheless intended to damage the government led by the soft-spoken, under-estimated, Uddhav.
Had Fadnavis shown greater diligence in bringing Ajit Pawar to book during 2014-19, the NCP would not have secured the Assembly seats it has. Several of those would have gone to the Shiv San and the BJP. In hindsight, the BJP leadership may be wishing that it had accepted the Shiv Sena’s demand that there be a rotational process for the Chief Ministership, with Fadnavis accommodated in the Union Cabinet after a tenure in office of 30 months. But who could have expected that Congress president Sonia Gandhi would fail to prevent her party in Maharashtra from teaming up with the Sena? Ajit Pawar and Sonia Gandhi are the two aces of the BJP, one to someday assist the BJP in forming a government, while the other ensures that Congress walks out on the Sena, so that no government can be formed other than a coalition led by the BJP. Both cards failed this time to deliver, but given the hold that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has over the voters of India, the BJP remains by far the most potent political force in Maharashtra. Public backing would rise were the state unit to move away from the Fadnavis line of protecting corrupt political rivals rather than holding them to account. Should the BJP move away from the state unit’s cynical cultivation of Ajit Pawar as a Trojan horse and sincerely take up the allegations against him, the party would gain not only in the state but across the country. This would be especially pronounced were PM Modi to succeed in his mission of ensuring that other VVIP wrongdoers go the way of P. Chidambaram. Although they account for less than 1% of the top 1% of policymakers, VVIP depredators account for 90% of the problem caused to the people by corruption in India. A clean-up at the top will ensure that others tempted by avenues for graft derive the proper lessons and abstain from such behaviour. Even if roads get cleaned and there be a toilet in every home, as hopefully will be the case when Modi seeks a third term in 2024, India will never be wholly “swachh” until VVIP corruption gets punished. If even six more VVIP wrongdoers follow Chidambaram in having to pay a price for past misdeeds, governance will shine. Other mega scams (such as the co-location imbroglio at NSE) will no longer go largely unexamined by SEBI, CBI and the ED. If the top six of about two dozen VVIP depredators get taken down, followed by the forcing of full refunds by the top six of the crony capitalist looters who hollowed out the banking system by borrowing funds that they had no intention of repaying, the economy of India will once again be on the path towards sustained high growth. The Sonia-Chidambaram system ensures through a complex web of punitive laws and opaque regulations that any person indulging in any form of economic activity can be persecuted and prosecuted through even technical breaches of the rules. Their system was set up to give officials (and their political masters) control over the citizen in a manner that damages the climate for enterprise. Welcome steps such as the removal of criminal penalties for alleged CSR breaches should be followed by further de-criminalisation of vast swathes of activity that are essential to encourage in a modern economy. Activity needs to be carried out without the constant threat of punitive action by officials hunting for bribes. The Centre must go after the top and allow lower levels freedom to invest and to spend, rather than continue the Sonia-Chidambaram system of sparing the top while viciously going after those below. Such a reform of the system was not undertaken by North Block during Modi 1.0. It is imperative that it be done during Modi 2.0, so as to pave the way for the high growth needed to ensure Modi 3.0. The cynical and self-defeating example of the Fadnavis government towards Ajit Pawar should be discarded in favour of enforcing accountability at the very top, the level that is the fountainhead of either our country’s downward slide or its salvation.

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