While charges have been many, VVIP arrests have been absent. The government needs to traverse between framing criminal charges and securing an actual arrest.
Winners and losers are sometimes separated on the running track by a centimetre or less between them. As we saw in the case of Olympian Milkha Singh, a good start is not enough unless such a fighting spirit gets carried through to the end. It is another matter that India is a country large-hearted enough to celebrate an athlete not for winning a medal, but for almost winning a medal. So far as the Narendra Modi government is concerned, it has now entered the final stretch before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. A key plank even of the 2019 campaign is corruption, and Prime Minister Modi needs to convince voters that the Chowkidar-in-Chief does not only have a big stick, but actually uses it to apprehend depredators. In other words, the government has to traverse the “last centimetre” between framing criminal charges and securing an actual arrest. Thus far, while charges have been many, VVIP arrests have been absent. The central government seems confident that Rahul Gandhi’s Rafale barbs notwithstanding, its image of incorruptibility is intact. However, it may be recalled that the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government was so confident of returning to power that even those computers where personal data was stored remained behind in offices and in official homes. This was convenient for the Vajpayee’s UPA successors, who were thereby able to peruse reams of the personal, political and financial “horoscopes” of key members of the Union Council of Ministers headed by Vajpayee. As Team Vajpayee believed that his government was anyway going to return to power once the formality of an election was completed, little effort seems to have been made before handing over power to retrieve and sanitise files and other records relating to subjects such as those related to fund collection. It is unlikely that key ministers in the UPA period made a similar mistake in 2014, for unlike the BJP ten years earlier, it was evident by early 2014 that the Sonia Gandhi-led formation would lose to a BJP captained by Narendra Modi, the only question being the margin of defeat. In a generous gesture, after results were declared, the incoming Prime Minister gave ten days to his predecessor before taking charge on 26 May 2014. Time enough to ensure that hyper sensitive files were retrieved and either sanitised or “lost”. Was it because of the 10-day hiatus (or the persuasion of Lutyenites) that the record of the present government has been slow in enforcing VVIP accountability? While there has been much television talk-time sound and fury involving enquiries into the activities of a few former UPA ministers, as yet agencies supervised by the present government have been unable to convince courts to send any of such grandees for custodial interrogation. Nearly five years after he was made the poster boy of VVIP excess by the BJP in its Lok Sabha election campaign, Robert Vadra remains a free man, with the Vasundhara Raje government in Rajasthan in particular having shown itself unable to establish the truth or otherwise of the many land grab charges that have been flung the businessman’s way. Was it that the calculation was made that just the threat of prosecution hanging over Robert Vadra would suffice to keep Priyanka from entering the political arena? If so, that strategy has failed. Not only has Priyanka joined all-India politics as the second-in-command of the Congress Party, but aware that the efflux of nearly five years has blunted the toxicity of the corruption allegations against her husband, has stood publicly and pluckily by his side as the Enforcement Directorate (always much better at barking at VVIPs rather than biting them through jail terms) began questioning the inventor of the phrase “Mango People”. Should the investigative agencies follow the Chidambaram precedent and prove unable to convince the judiciary to grant custodial interrogation, voters will regard the sudden flurry of Vadra-related ED activity as nothing more than electoral theatrics, as recently is taking place in Kolkata. In the next Lok Sabha, Bengal and Tamil Nadu may decide who will form the next government, as they did in 2004, and unless the Modi government can convince voters well before the polls that both the TMC as well as the DMK are hopelessly mired in graft, both seem on course to ensure a repeat of what happened to the Vajpayee government at the close of its term, of course at that time with the Left parties (and not as now the TMC) providing the Lok Sabha MPs needed for Sonia Gandhi to fashion a government.
Unless accountability gets enforced through more kinetic action, images of the CBI and the ED appearing on national television “swooping” on VVIP targets will end at the hustings in another race where no medal gets won. In the legal history of India, among the worst failures of the investigating agencies was their inability to persuade a Special CBI Court to accept as valid their claims of illegality against the 2G accused. The day a verdict of “Not Guilty” was pronounced by the 2G CBI court, confidence in the BJP-led government as having the capacity to hold VVIP wrongdoers to account fell to levels below the safe zone. Should the next three weeks not see at least a handful of VVIPs getting subjected to the “bite” of incarceration, such confidence will remain low, to the glee of the numerous parties that are busy planning the logistics of their own swearing in as the next government. Given the volume of information just in the public domain about the manner in which more than a few political and official VVIPs boosted the totals of their (largely overseas) wealth in the past two decades, it has come as a surprise that while television debates have been frequent and lively, actual accountability has been far more modest. An ounce of performance has more value than a ton of promises, and in 2019, what will count at voting booths will be what has been done by the Modi government, rather than what has been said. Should the last centimetre between charges made and custody not get bridged, the BJP could find itself where Milkha Singh was in the 1960s Olympics Games. Without a medal.