Will Rafale 2019 be Bofors 1989?

Rahul Gandhi was just seventeen years old when the Bofors gun payoff scandal first exploded, a corruption charge that would tar his father Rajiv Gandhi's reputation and eventually push the Congress towards defeat in the 1989 elections. Now, three decades later, the Congress president seems determined to extract 'revenge' for his father's political downfall by making the Rafale aircraft deal a centre-piece of his 2019 election campaign. But is 2019 really going to be 1989 all over again and will Rafale become the Bofors of our times? Even more importantly, is Narendra Modi's government as vulnerable as Rajiv's was all those years ago?

Let's look at the similarities first. Both Rajiv Gandhi and Narendra Modi have headed majority governments, with an unassailable legislative majority that ensured there was no immediate threat to their rule. Both came to power with the promise of being change agents: a strident anti corruption rhetoric was core to their public image. Both of them found half way through their term, a measure of anti incumbency settling in and the charges of corruption surfacing around the mid-term point (1987 in the case of Rajiv, 2017 in Mr Modi's case).

Both leaders have been dragged into similar defence deal controversies where the armed forces requirements are not under question: India in the 1980s needed the Howitzer field guns desperately ( as proven later in the 1999 Kargil war) just as the Rafale aircraft is seen today as an urgent need to reinforce the Air Force's depleted squadron capabilities. In both cases, a European government has been on the other side of the negotiations (France and Sweden). And typically, in both the instances, there has been a veil of secrecy swirling around the contract terms that has left governments susceptible to the charge that they have something to hide.

But there are marked differences too. Remember the charge of corruption in Bofors was very specifically made by Swedish radio first that the Swedish arms company had paid kickbacks to a number of politicians across countries, including Indians. This was then followed up by a series of detailed investigative reports that very clearly established the pay-offs and the presence of middlemen in the deal. So far, there has been no similar money trail established in the Rafale case: the charge is primarily of cronyism and the allegation that individual businessmen close to the government have got undue benefits from the deal. It is possible that at some later stage the suspicion of cronyism will lead to more direct and substantive evidence of a quid pro quo but for now, it is the perception of wrong-doing that is sought to be created.

Moreover, in Bofors, the then defence minister, VP Singh dramatically resigned and became the magnet for the sustained opposition attack on the government. Here, there is no such opposition unity in evidence: the Rafale campaign has been almost solely driven by the Congress even as the regional parties have mostly stayed away from joining the offensive. Then, an entire session of parliament was boycotted by a joint opposition for the first time in the history of independent India while now the Congress has been unable to trigger a similar scaled up protest inside the house.

The fact that VP Singh was far more successful in bringing together an opposition coalition from left to right on one platform may be a reflection of the depth of anti-Congressism at the time. As the dominant force of the era, the Congress's monopolistic position meant that the opposition parties were almost forced to hang together. That opposition unity has been less in evidence now, as witnessed most recently during the election to the Rajya Sabha deputy chairman's post. Where there is now an element of anti-Modiism that is gradually bringing together a section of the opposition, the Congress isn't quite the instant glue that VP's Janata Dal became in the late 1980s. Nor is Rahul Gandhi still accepted as a natural leader of such a alliance in the making. It is even probable that the business interests of some opposition leaders are so inextricably tied in with corporate India that they are unwilling to raise the red flag in an unambiguous manner.

Which brings us to some of the central figures in the two controversies. Rajiv Gandhi was not a professional politician in the manner that Mr Modi is, perhaps lacking the 'take no prisoners' cut-throat competitive edge that the present prime minister brings to his politics. This, arguably, left him more exposed, especially when his key aides began to desert him at the time. Mr Modi, by contrast, brings an element of awe and fear to his politics, conferring on him a larger than life presence in the political universe. While Rajiv was quickly pushed on the defensive by the allegations and forced to clarify, Mr Modi has chosen to brazen it out, supremely confident that his well-crafted persona as a crusader against corruption cannot be dented by his opponents so easily.

Which brings one to a final observation. In 1989, VP Singh succeeded because he was able to artfully position himself as the challenger who could occupy the moral high ground on corruption. Rahul Gandhi is not the incumbent but the baggage of the Congress’s past corruption scandals weighs him down. The Indian middle class embraced VP Singh when he rather theatrically claimed that he had the Bofors pay-off Swiss bank account number in his pocket because he epitomized an ‘anti-establishment’ spirit that could capture the public imagination much like an ageing activist like Anna Hazare did years later. That is a role which the Congress leadership will find difficult to emulate: after all, when you represent a party which has been in power for much of the last seven decades, how do you re-position yourself as the angry young ‘outsider’ and stay on the right side of the perception battle? That question lies at the core of Rahul Gandhi’s 2019 challenge.

Post-script: The Bofors scandal broke in the pre-television era where news agendas could be set by a handful of leading English newspapers. In a more frenzied, cluttered, and dare one say more ‘democratised’ news environment, marked by shorter attention spans, where today’s breaking news is the next day’s history, it is unlikely that an issue with a rather convoluted case history like Rafale will have quite the same impact.

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