In distant Whitehall, the political class is having a pretty bad week. Andrew Mitchell, the powerful Chief Whip of Britain’s ruling Conservative Party, had to resign after reports emerged that he had sworn at police officers preventing him from entering Prime Minister David Cameron’s residence at Number 10, Downing Street. That Mr Mitchell called the policemen on duty “plebs”, underlining a perceived class disconnect between the Conservative leadership and the British people, made it worse. This impression was only reinforced when, on Friday, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne had to upgrade the second-class ticket he had bought after he had settled into a first-class railway compartment. Of course, any possibility that rules do not apply to the politically powerful is distasteful — and this point was made not just by opposition parties but by many within the two parties of government, too.
The comparison to India is, in some ways, stark. The anti-corruption activist-turned-politician Arvind Kejriwal, in the course of his rapid-fire, scattershot accusations, has discomfited the entire political class here, too, possibly revealing a disconnect between how they think they are entitled to run their affairs and how some of their electorate believes they should. And, certainly, many have jumped onto some of the accusations, with some in the opposition BJP gleefully savouring the revelations about Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law’s questionable dealings, and the discomfiture of Law Minister Salman Khurshid because of allegations against his family’s NGO. Yet, by and large, the reaction of the political class has not been accepting of the fundamental problems that Mr Kejriwal is inadvertently helping reveal. It might be too strong, in this noisy environment, to call it a conspiracy of silence — but, certainly, there is a shared discomfort that is the enemy of open politics.
Consider, for example, the accusations against BJP President Nitin Gadkari. The television channel NDTV and its reporter Sreenivasan Jain have documented several problems arising from Mr Gadkari’s business interests. First, several financiers in Mr Gadkari’s companies are unknown at the addresses filed in the corporate affairs ministry database. Second, he received a secured loan of Rs 165 crore from a company with paid-up capital of Rs 1 lakh. Third, some investors in Mr Gadkari’s company had been awarded contracts by the department of the Maharashtra government when Mr Gadkari had headed it just over a year earlier. If the first two seem questionable from a business point of view, the last one is clearly in conflict-of-interest territory. Mr Gadkari has attempted to explain some of these issues. But it is interesting that his suitability to lead India’s principal opposition party is still unquestioned.
Leave it to Digvijay Singh, the Congress’ prime irritant for its political opponents, to point out the obvious. He claimed that the United Progressive Alliance government had “material” evidence of wrong-doing by relatives of former Prime Minister A B Vajpayee, and of L K Advani, the BJP’s last PM candidate. The Congress, he said, trying to discover a moral high ground, “would never use” such evidence. Leave aside the fact that such accusations without substantiation mean you, in fact, abandon the moral high ground. That such agreement exists in India’s polity when some voters clearly wish they didn’t is well worth reflecting on.