Decades later, the Bofors scam still has an almost iconic status in our political history. The scam in the mid-80s, more than anything else, crystallised political anger against Rajiv Gandhi and ensured that an all-powerful Prime Minister who had won the largest parliamentary majority in India's history wound up sitting in the Opposition benches. So what, precisely, was Finance Minister Arun Jaitley thinking when he sought to bring up Bofors in the Lok Sabha in response to Rahul Gandhi's speech about the Rafale purchase?
It is hard to see how the mention of Bofors in this context could have helped the Bharatiya Janata Party. Everyone knows about Bofors, and that it stained the reputation of the Gandhis and the Congress. Everyone also knows that nothing was ever proved to the satisfaction of a court. The only thing that people would take from the mention of Bofors is the possible parallel to Rafale: a defence purchase around which swirl questions, which the courts can't seem to rule on, and which might end up tarnishing the record of a Prime Minister who enjoys an unprecedented parliamentary majority.
Congress chief Rahul Gandhi challenged PM Modi to a 20-minute one-on-one debate on the Rafale issue
There's only one takeaway from the duelling speeches delivered by Rahul Gandhi and Arun Jaitley in the Lok Sabha, and that is that the BJP is, for some reason, rattled. This is not 2014; attacks on the Congress for corruption aren't going to have the power they had back then. The Congress, meanwhile, is in a far more comfortable situation when it comes to Rafale: they can continue to level all sorts of allegations in the vague hope that something will stick to the Prime Minister. And why not? After all, that isn't very different from how both the BJP and Arvind Kejriwal operated during UPA-II. It worked for them, why not for the Congress?
Personally, I still continue to be unconvinced that there is a real case against the Prime Minister over Rafale, at least given what's in the public domain currently. Yes, he short-circuited the usual procedure for the purchase – but isn't that how Narendra Modi generally operates? The Cabinet Committee on Security may not have been consulted – but, again, does anyone think that Modi cares what his cabinet colleagues think about anything?
The acquisition of Rafale fighter jets for the Indian Air Force has been one of the most controversial defence deals every signed by India
But that doesn't mean that Rafale will not wind up being politically powerful – for a very basic reason: the BJP's fundamental claim that corruption and cronyism are at an end is just hard for people to believe. How can they believe it when there is no noticeable diminution of corruption in their own lives? When demonetisation did not usher in the new age of honest law-abiding tax-payers the Prime Minister promised? And, most of all, when it is clear that big business is in the BJP's pocket, and the ruling party seems to have unlimited amounts of spending money, enough to plaster ads everywhere extolling the Prime Minister and his government? To ask Indians to believe the era of cronyism is over is to ask them to ignore the evidence of their own senses. And that's why, regardless of the facts of the case, the Rafale accusation will continue to run and run. Good politics is, sadly, not about truth any more – if it ever was. It is about finding a simple narrative that expresses what people already feel about the world. And if people feel that there is still corruption around, in spite of what the Prime Minister claims, then Rafale is good politics.
That is why apparently little things like the Goa Health Minister apparently revealing, in an unauthenticated audio recording, that Manohar Parrikar claims to have secret files about Rafale "in his bedroom" are so damaging for the BJP. Both Parrikar and his minister immediately denied it, but the damage is done – it feeds into the idea that something about this deal is being kept from us. When the Lok Sabha speaker forbids Rahul Gandhi to mention the name of the industrialist who supposedly benefited from the deal on the floor of the House, it merely gives credence to the idea that the BJP has something to hide. For the Congress, any news about Rafale is good news.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley countered Mr Gandhi's allegations, accusing him of falling into the category of those who have "a natural dislike for the truth."
The Supreme Court, when it refused to order an investigation into Rafale, has not put the matter to rest. How could it? Everyone knows two things: first, that very few corruption cases involving the powerful in this country have made it through the courts. And, second, that the courts can only pronounce on what they are told – and nobody expects the government to have given them the whole truth. All that the Congress has to do is ask if Parrikar's "secret files" were shown to the Supreme Court – and no matter if Parrikar denies that such files exist, the government is again in the dock, this time for supposedly misleading the court.
When Rahul Gandhi decided to make an issue of Rafale, most of us jeered. Frankly, it seemed both irresponsible and pointless. Modi seemed coated in Teflon – nothing would stick to him. And defence deals should not become the fodder for easy political wins. But the truth is that we may have been wrong. Defence deals have always become political because so few people understand the pricing of weaponry, and because of the vast sums of money involved. And Rahul Gandhi seemed to have figured out that everything else about Modi's tenure has been tepid, at best a mild improvement over the UPA and often worse. The only thing that remains as a defense for the Prime Minister in the WhatsApp groups that determine Indian middle-class sentiment is the fact that, first, he is honest and that second, Rahul is no good at his job. By taking Modi on over Rafale, Rahul Gandhi pokes holes in both arguments. Jaitley may well have attacked him on the floor of the House for failing to understand how aircraft are priced. But he can no longer mock him for being a bad politician or too stupid for his job – which is a far more damaging line of attack.
The Bofors case revolved around allegations that the Swedish defence manufacturer paid kickbacks to then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi for the sale of its artillery gun to India
Rafale is not going away easily. The best thing that the Modi government can do at this point to recover the situation is radical openness. Show us what was in the sealed cover that went to the Supreme Court. Openly answer the questions that the Congress and others have raised. And set up a Joint Parliamentary Committee. If it has nothing to hide – which remains the most likely option – then it should not behave like it does. The longer it behaves just like Rajiv Gandhi did during the Bofors scandal, the more likely it is that Arun Jaitley's unfortunate Bofors-Rafale comparison will stick.
(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)
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