Saturday, July 4, 2015

Harish Khare: Flunking the smell test - Old universe, new masters

Before Lalit Modi, there was Pramod Mahajan. Before Pramod Mahajan, there was Amar Singh. Before Amar Singh there was Satish Sharma. There is a glorious continuity in the ethical permissiveness that has been revealed in the Sushma Swaraj-Vasundhara Raje-Lalit Modi nexus.  Some may even find these connections rather reassuring. These gentlemen (and women), after all, can be said to have answered a functional requirement in a mixed and mixed-up economy like ours: to produce a working synergy between power, greed and dubious money. 

For every Lalit Modi who gets into the headlines, there are dozens of the ilk, assiduously practising the craft: of making  arrangements for the corporate entrepreneur to seek favours and indulgences from those entrusted with the responsibility of protecting public interest.  And no one needs to get sentimental or righteous about this breed. 
If the current outrage over the Swaraj-Raje-Dushyant-Lalit entanglements seems somewhat exaggerated it is only because last year the country was given an impression that the scene will change. We were made to believe that a new dawn had ascended and that the Bent and the Beautiful Set had been sent packing.  We need to be thankful to Lalit Modi that he has toggled us out of this manufactured innocence. 

Admittedly, the "Lalitgate" disclosures are about old sins. New is the defence of those sinful indiscretions.  The ruling establishment has unleashed, with unabated vigour and aggression, a torrent of pettifoggery in order to refute any suggestion of any wrongdoing. The establishment has firmly refused to see the moral issue.  Its cheer-leaders dismiss the screaming headlines as a byproduct of the “channels’ war.”  

Even the RSS is reported to have bought into the lawyerly arguments being made in defence of the jugalbandi between the new power and the old crooks. As a select body of men and boys, the Nagpur brass has always taken its deshbhakti very seriously and has insisted on anointing itself as the arbiter of ethical values and social norms. Now the same RSS hierarchy has allowed itself to be persuaded into the need to take a “political” view of the Lalit Modi-Sushma Swaraj-Vasundhara Raje nexus.  Lalit Modi has made everyone, irrespective of political affiliation or pretence or position, look so ordinary, so compromised and so soiled.

For nearly three weeks, the country has been treated to a spectacle of unappetising connections and connivances. Some sensitive souls have expressed their dismay over the Prime Minister's silence on this “affair.” In fact, it will not matter whether, if at all, the Prime Minister gets around to saying something on the Lalitgate; it will not make any difference even if the Prime Minister chooses to show his External Affairs Minister the door or asks the Rajasthan Chief Minister to put in her papers. 

Nothing that can be said or done will restore the pre-May 2014 myth of lily-white innocence.  The country has already seen and judged for itself the striking parallel between the Robert Vadra-DLF financial relationship and the Dushyant Singh-Lalit Modi commercial dealings. Simply put:  DLF would not have invested in Robert Vadra's land deals if he was not Sonia Gandhi's son-in-law; and Lalit Modi would not have bought shares in Dushyant Singh’s “company” had he not been Vasundhara Raje's son. The same set of people who invited us to feel outraged at the Vadra-DLF connection are now dismissing the Dushyant-Lalit Modi deal as “commercial transactions.”

The new regime has failed the smell test. And that is not such a catastrophe. The new order was not all that new, to begin with. The dramatis personae in the new order were perhaps new to the national capital but they were no stranger to the Bent and the Beautiful Set's ways and its corrosive demands. They have had a decade to get tutored in the advantages of crony governance. In fact, the new establishment can be said to be well-versed in the art of using the state and its powers, formal and informal, to advance the interests of a few crony capitalists. Yet it encouraged us to believe that the BJP had been purged of all those interests, impulses and individuals who entrenched themselves during Pramod Mahajan’s heydays when India was shining brightly. 

This claim now stands abandoned. But, rest assured, the sky will not fall. We may even welcome the choreographed response to last month's revelations as return of “business as usual.” Or, to borrow a book title from Rama Bijapurkar, “we are like that only.” 

Indeed every society and its polity need a narrative that helps the incumbent regimes to justify in moral and ethical terms the prevailing social disparities and economic distortions. This is not an easy task, even in the most advanced and presumably "non-corrupt" societies. But every society also proclaims itself to be wedded to the ideas of rule of law and notions of accountability; every self-proclaimed democracy also puts in place institutions of vigilance and monitoring to minimise misuse of state authority for private gains. 

Every country in every age has, also, known the breed — the dubious entrepreneur who uses his moxie and money to lure the politician into his den of greed. Crony capitalism thrives on connections which help cut corners. And crony capitalists prosper in direct proportion to the clout of their political patrons. The new regime too is not without its favourites. It was only a few months ago that State Bank of India officials were made to be present in Brisbane during Prime Minister Modi's Australian trip, to lend weight and “comfort” to Gautam Adani's efforts to acquire a few coal mines; a few weeks later the bank quietly let it be known that it was having second thoughts on the entire Adani project. It is difficult to recall a similar precedent when the Indian State so frontally lent its prestige to a private businessman — and, no one found anything amiss. 

The Lalit Modi-induced crisis has come not a day too soon. It has constrained the regime's apologists to put forth propositions, postures and positions that constitute a new narrative, over and above the assertion of baseline good intentions.  The bottom line of this new narrative is an assertion that a quest for wholesome governance is a misguided project.  

If there has to be vikas, the country needs to be tutored in new definitions of right and wrong, legal and illegal, moral and immoral. The polity must move beyond its preoccupation with Gandhian values and virtues.   If the country wants the dreams and desires of “Aspirational India” to be fulfilled, then the “system” must learn to overlook excesses that the Bent and the Beautiful Set will inevitably commit. Deshbhakts need not be a pusillanimous lot; they will not allow themselves to be slowed down with old-fashioned concern for decency and piety. As the Home Minister formulated: the NDA crowd does not commit any impropriety. QED.