Gandhis, scams and lies: Who will you vote for?

Last Updated: Wed, Apr 09, 2014 05:58 hrs

I ain’t no politician,
I don’t like to play that game
I ain’t no politician,
But I love to have my say….
Politician: by High, a Calcutta rock band from the mid 80s
It’s time once again to have your say. And while many of us might not like to play that game, we still need to pick the team that does.  An election, particularly in our neck of the woods, is not really a game. It’s more like war.

During a war, as we all know, truth is the first casualty. And since our incredibly short and fickle public memory is complemented by the lack of an institutional memory, even blatant lies become difficult to call out. And a lie repeated often enough becomes, for all purposes, the truth.  

To take just one example, there are many Indians who believe Rahul Gandhi is related to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. And it is not just the poor uneducated… I’ve heard a senior manager with several academic qualifications to his credit declare that a party “led by the Bapu’s offspring” could not be all that bad.

To the extent that the Mahatma's great grandson Shrikrishna Kulkarni, (who’s recently joined the Aam Aadmi Party) was forced to request the Congress to stop misusing the Mahatma’s name.

“I definitely think they are trying to take advantage. You take any poster. You will see Gandhi's photo. And then that of Indira's and Sonia's and Rajiv's. In fact, Nehru's photo is often not there. But Mahatma left the Congress in the 1930s…” he told CNN IBN in an interview.

So if we can’t believe our politicians, on what basis can we judge them? Their achievements? Their professed ‘ideology’? Their party manifestos? The scams perpetuated during their tenure at the helm?

A quick search for the latter threw up so many pages (Wikipedia alone lists more than 200 famous scams, ranging from pickles to paper pulp, from fertilisers to sugar, coffins to the Commonwealth Games…) that I decided to narrow it down to a single domain: Defence.

But while researching defence scams, I stumbled upon an argument which pushed my eyebrows almost to the back of my head. Here’s what it said: 

“BJP claims, they are saints and want Congress to be chucked out.  While Congress’s Scams has bigger money involved and are of high end technology, BJPs scams are quite silly and cheap.  Most of the time BJP’s scam list has few crore rupee as the money swallowed by them.  BJP also indulged in silly frauds like, making money in government staff appointments, allotting residential plots their family members, to the worst their scam includes Kargil coffin!..”

So in other words, the BJP should be forgiven for its scams simply because they were ‘silly and cheap frauds,’ unlike the high cost ones indulged in by the Congress. Hallelujah.  

The first recorded scam by our politicians was in the realm of defence, barely a year after Independence. Known as the Jeep scam, it involved Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s dear friend VK Krishna Menon, who, as Independent India’s first high commissioner to the UK, ignored protocol to sanction Rs.  80 lakh to purchase 200 Jeeps from a British firm. Only 155 arrived in India.

Nehru not only intervened to clear him, but Krishna Menon went on to become defence minister until the 1962 border war with China forced him to resign.

This next big defence scam was the Bofors scam of 1986. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and his colleagues were accused of receiving kickbacks worth over Rs 64 crore from the Swedish field gun maker, for a deal to supply 200 howitzers worth US $ 1.4 billion. This scam was a major reason for the rout of the Congress Party in the 1989 elections.

The HDW deal, in which the German submarine maker was accused of paying  Rs 20 (yes, a paltry twenty) crore in kickbacks to Indian politicians, also surfaced around this time, leading to the blacklisting of the company, and subsequently, a ban on middlemen in military deals. It was only in 2005, more than a quarter century later, that HDW was exonerated by an Indian court.  

Despite the ‘cheap’ fraud of a paltry Rs 64 crore, and an inquiry finding that Rajiv Gandhi did not directly benefit from the scam (but knew those who did), Bofors continues to haunt not just the Congress/Gandhi family, but also our military.

The first is perhaps due to the Italian connection in the form of main accused Ottavio Quattrocchi,  a Gandhi family friend whose son Massimo apparently ‘grew up’ with Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi.

As for the military, the blacklisting of Bofors led to a peculiar situation during the Kargil war, when we had to urgently import ammunition and spares for the gun – being used to pound Pakistani positions high in the mountains-- indirectly through South Africa at way above market rates.

Ottavio died last year, but his ghost lingers on.

Of course, since then we’ve had several military scams, estimated at thousands of crores. And though bureaucrats, or even military men, were involved in some of them, eventually politicians would get into the act.

The Barak Missile scam, the Kargil coffin scam, the Tehelka expose (where then BJP president Bangaru Laxman was caught on tape accepting  Re 1 lakh for recommending that the defence ministry sanction a contract for ‘thermal binoculars’ for the Indian Army) the Scorpene Submarine scam, (estimated at a whopping  18,978 crore) and more recently, the Tatra truck scam…the list is endless.

Both the main major political parties clearly made hay from defence contracts, and it seems rather puerile to try and see who made more.

Personally, I think the current defence minister’s attempt to protect his Mr Clean image by refusing to clear any deal is far more dangerous for the nation, since a lot of our military equipment is of World War II vintage. But that’s another story.

Which brings me back to my original question: how does one objectively judge which party or person to vote for in May?

One way of course is to look at the contenders for the post of Prime Minister, which at the moment seems limited to Rahul Gandhi of the Congress, Narendra Modi of the BJP, and the dark horse, Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party. (The names of three worthy ladies – Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati and Jayalalithaa, have also been cropping up, and it would be foolish to dismiss them off-hand)

But again that too becomes a rather subjective issue.  

For instance, Kejriwal might be God’s gift to India, but something about the man sets my teeth on edge.
Rahul Gandhi? How do we expect a man who’s never worked in his life to run the country? (Easy, remarked a wag: did Indira Gandhi ever have a regular job?)
Narendra Modi, the punter’s favourite at the moment, seems to have a penchant for micro-management, which seems near impossible in a nation as large and diverse as ours.

A friend of mine who makes no bones about his dislike for Modi recently asked: “The Gujarat chief minister might boast about holding weekly video conferences with his district magistrates, but can a prime minister of India do so regularly with chief ministers of the north eastern states, or even the ones south of the Vindhyas?”
If you ask me, it’s an idea worth trying.  

All three parties, the Congress, the BJP and the AAP, promise social upliftment in their manifestos. And of course they lie. It is in their interest to keep the masses illiterate, poor, divided and deprived. The educated ones don’t count, because most of them apparently don’t vote.  

Speaking of manifestos, the Congress one, from what little I read of it, is yawn inducing. Dole, dole, and more dole.

As for the BJP manifesto, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Chairman and Managing Director of Biocon, India's largest Biotechnology company, and a lady described by Forbes Magazine as ‘the wealthiest self-made woman in India’, has some interesting insights on her blog.

The AAP, of course, can’t seem to see much beyond corruption and how only the Jan Lokpal Bill can kill it.

In the end, it appears that getting an objective handle on who can provide better governance is an exercise in futility. Who one votes for must ultimately remain purely subjective.

And if that indeed is the case, I guess I’ll have my say after all.

I know who I’m voting for. What about you?  

(The author is an independent foreign and strategic affairs analyst.)

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