This shadow of exception
Kejriwal is hitting below the belt”, complained the Congress spokesperson P.C. Chacko during a TV debate on l’affaire Vadra-DLF. He was obviously under stress to perform and a little nervous, like most Congressmen in public this week, but his hurt seemed genuine. He sounded really affronted by the violation of a laxman rekha.
Indeed, Prashant Bhushan and Arvind Kejriwal have violated a code of silence observed in Delhi’s corridors of power. The shock is not in the revelation itself. Robert Vadra’s weakness for property has been a staple of Delhi’s gossip circles for quite some time. No self-respecting journalist is surprised at what has been disclosed. Nor is the evidence a particularly stunning piece of investigation. Almost all the documents used are drawn from public sources. The BJP president has acknowledged seeing these documents some time ago. Everyone who mattered knew about it, yet it was understood that this is not for public consumption. During Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s regime, everyone knew about Ranjan Bhattacharya’s role in the PMO or the late Pramod Mahajan’s multi-faceted adventures. Yet neither the media nor the then opposition spoke about it in public. A rank outsider has shattered this carefully cultivated silence.
Stepping out from darkness into sunlight can be hard. So it has been for our media. It is not just the Congressmen who are more embarrassed than their first family, a section of the media too is visibly uneasy. This unease results in blanking out this news or shooting the messengers or an over-eagerness to protect the accused. Used to treating the Dynasty as an exception, our public debates start demanding exceptional standards for this trial. Congressmen who regularly hurled accusations of corruption against all non-Congress governments now demand that corruption must be proven in a court of law before it is spoken about in public. Media begins to demand standards of proof that it never set for itself.
This shadow of exception continues to hover over how the debate is framed. This debate invites us to ask if the evidence presented in this case is complete, if quid pro quo has been established, if all the dots have been connected. The obvious answer is no. Proving all this beyond doubt would take an investigating agency that has power to access or extract any information. All this would be relevant if someone had demanded criminal action against Vadra or DLF. Bhushan and Kejriwal have only demanded an independent and credible inquiry.
If we were not discussing a member of the Gandhi family, we would have asked a simple question: are we dealing with a frivolous accusation? Or does the evidence presented so far add up to a serious question worth looking into? Clearly, this is not like Narendra Modi’s charge of the government having spent Rs 1,800 crore on Sonia Gandhi’s travel from some unnamed account. Nor is it the usual accusation of some billions stored by this or that politician in some unspecified Swiss bank account. The charge made by Bhushan and Kejriwal is backed by documentary evidence — balance sheet, audit report, official documents.
So far, one or two flaws have been pointed out. Clearly, the citation of the High Court judgment that indicted the government of Haryana for entering a nexus with DLF for land grabbing should have mentioned that the judgment has been stayed by the Supreme Court. But the authenticity of these documents or their basic point has not been disputed. Independent media investigations have confirmed, if not strengthened, the suspicion. We do not know if Vadra is guilty of some illegality. Like anyone accused of wrongdoing, the law must presume him to be innocent and he must be able to offer his explanation. But he needs to explain something. He and DLF need to come clean. And if they are reluctant, someone must make them do so.
The real question in this debate is not even about the legality or otherwise of what Vadra may have done. That will, hopefully, be taken care of by the courts. The real question that can and must be debated in public is the propriety of what has come to light. Can the conduct of Vadra and the DLF company be considered clean business practice? Is it a normal business practice for a company in large debt to make large insecure loans of this kind? Does the involvement of the Haryana government in this matter demonstrate a commitment to public interest? Whether there was legal fraud or not, is the HUDA not too eager to protect the interests of DLF over and above those of farmers or the public at large? Is is appropriate for central ministers, in charge of ministries that are meant to check any business wrongdoing, to fall over each other to issue certificates of innocence to this “private” businessman?
Above all, there is a question of political morality. Is it appropriate for the son-in-law of the most powerful political family to indulge in business practices that are at best dubious? The prime minister’s family — his wife, daughters and sons-in-law — could serve as a model for the Gandhi family here. Has Vadra lived up to those standards of rectitude that one must expect of those in the proximity of political power? If he has not, what did Sonia Gandhi do about it? We have not yet heard from the family and must therefore reserve our final judgement. But as of now, the most powerful family seems in this case to be falling short of the required standards of public morality.
The short-term consequences of this episode appear to be uncertain and ambiguous. We do not know how the loss of legitimacy might hit the ruling party’s already declining fortunes. It is harder to speculate on who the beneficiary might be. We do not know if it would contribute to a sense of cynicism about politics or help build an alternative.
In the long run, however, the breakdown of this code of silence is good news for the country. If Vadra can be questioned in public, just like any ordinary property dealer, then no one is beyond the pale of public scrutiny. Hopefully, this spirit of public scrutiny can then be extended to the Ambanis and Saharas and to how their empires are linked with politics and the media.
The writer is associated with Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan in setting up a new political party, firstname.lastname@example.org