There is one articulate politician who knows more than he might be likely to admit about corporate influence on political power. Mani Shankar Aiyar brought a sudden energy, purpose and direction to the department of petroleum and gas when he was given this Cabinet portfolio by Dr Manmohan Singh. Suddenly, quite out of the blue, Aiyar was shifted out. He was not dropped from the ministry; nothing quite so brutal, but he was, as it were, put in his place — and that place was as far from petroleum as could be. Why?
Aiyar was among the best ministers. He had one problem, however, as far as the Congress leadership was concerned: he would not take dictation from an extremely powerful industrialist with substantial interests in the gas sector. Aiyar was replaced by a man who happily advertised his proximity to this industrialist.
This is hardly the only instance of crony capitalism and corporate bullying during the Congress regime between 2004 and 2014. We all know public memory is short, but this should not dwarf facts. Remember the Radia tapes, which constitute documentary evidence of ministers being allotted portfolios on behalf of business lobbies in 2009, when Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi were in supreme command? The deluge of corruption cases, with the shocking transfer of coal assets to cronies at its epicentre, is profound evidence of national resources being handed over to a select group of cronies who paid handsome amounts for their influence. This cash-and-carry system ensured they had access to every level of power, whether in the privacy of drawing rooms or in government buildings.
As newspapers study the first year of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister, the pink press has noted, many times, that the climate has changed in Delhi. Industrialists are comparatively invisible in Delhi and lobbyists are struggling through a lean season after ten years during which corruption was facilitated by the highest in the land and then protected by zero-loss theories. Narendra Modi has proved within twelve months that government can also function with zero tolerance of corruption. There is proof. The auction of just 10% of coal mines, once handed out as virtual gifts, has brought Rs 200,000 crore to the public exchequer. The mind boggles at the extent of loot that was going on.
Why has Rahul Gandhi invested so heavily in the blatant untruth that NDA is close to "corporates"? The first reason is also the most obvious. After having indulged in unprecedented corruption, Congress is desperate for an image makeover.
Remember the Radia tapes, which constitute documentary evidence of UPA ministers being allotted portfolios on behalf of business lobbies in 2009, when Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi were in supreme command?
The second reason is a bit more complex. Rahul Gandhi has stepped back into caricature rhetoric from the 1960s and 1970s, in which the private sector was ridiculed and vilified as an evil ogre drinking the blood of citizens for breakfast. This chant is the product of an infantile mind that has absorbed pseudo-Marxist litany with all the intellectual curiosity of blotting paper. I thought that Congress had moved away from failed recipes when it embarked upon reforms in the early 1990s in order to expand space for the private sector. Clearly, there has been rhetoric reversal.
The irony is that Indians no longer buy a product past its sell-by date. Even the great bastion of Communism, China, doesn't. India's economic thinking has matured. Both sectors, private and public, must survive by the same values: honesty in operations and accountability in balance sheets. There is no leeway for corruption or waste in either; the law will not support the first and the state should not sustain the second. If SAIL is a good example of public sector well-being, then Air India is an equally powerful instance of public sector ill-health.
Congress has mounted barrage warfare to deceive the poor. The poor, fortunately, have enormous resources of common sense. They know who stole what during the Congress decade. They also know how to measure any government. They will support the Jan Dhan Yojana because funds for khadi production schemes in villages, to give one example, reach them through newly opened bank accounts and they do not have to get the money through layers of institutional corruption that reduced a rupee of welfare to fifteen paise on the ground. The poor will support the social security system created by the Modi government that offers life insurance worth Rs 200,000 for a nominal premium and accident insurance at even lower rates. The jobless know the difference between empty rhetoric and smart city projects that create the wealth of jobs and regular wages.
Distortion can so easily become a counter-productive habit. After having denied One-Rank-One-Pension to the armed forces for a decade, Congress has begun to claim that it is father of a child being delivered today. Soldiers are not blind. Distortion has become such an addiction that there soon will come a time that the people will not believe Congress leaders if they happen to tell the truth.