It’s time to adhere to those high standards

There is little doubt that the Lalit Modi controversy has hurt the image of the Narendra Modi Government. Two sets of decisions and actions have evoked discussion, especially in the television studios. In one case, it is possible to partially explain the action but not to justify it. In the other, it is not possible to offer either an explanation or a justification, at least on the basis of facts that are known.

Mr Lalit Modi is an infamous and downright notorious character, a man who ran his businesses, including the Indian Premier League — which he converted into a private swindle — like a bucket shop. It is equally true that he has connections across party lines. In the years when the IPL was a Lalit Modi gravy train — 2008 to 2010 — many well-known people, with diverse political affiliations, hopped on for a ride. Apart from the BJP politicians he has named in his interview to India Today, Mr Lalit Modi has mentioned the top brass of the Nationalist Congress Party and a series of Congress politicians.

Yet, all of this does little to mitigate the BJP-led Government’s embarrassment. The blunt truth is Mr Narendra Modi won the election in 2014 promising a new culture in the broken city of Delhi. He committed himself to taking on the mutual back-scratching, the cronyism and the private arrangements in the clubby environs of Lutyens’ city. Whichever way one looks at it, the upshot of both episodes that have put the BJP on the defensive is a pointer to precisely what has been wrong with the Delhi-centric consensus, which thinks nothing of hijacking public resources, tampering with policy and setting a kleptocratic, self-serving elite as the social standard for the rest of India to follow.

Prime Minister Modi has fought this culture in the past year. Part of his problem with sections of the Indian corporate sector is that he, and his Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, have refused to give in to pressure to return to a business-as-usual system of banking. There is zero pressure from South Block and North Block to lend money to dubious projects run by friends of senior Ministers, or on the basis of phone calls from the Prime Minister’s Office.

This has been no mean achievement. It has invited sniper fire from and on behalf of those businessmen who are stuck with (sometimes self-created) non-performing and stalled projects, which are already heavily in debt to banks. They now want more money to bankroll their lives, lifestyles and businesses. They are pushing the Government to ask banks to pour good money after bad — without the businessmen in question sacrificing equity, giving up control of the projects they have run to the ground or losing out in any substantial way.

If the Narendra Modi Government can continue to resist this pressure, and if it can stare down such opposition, it will have done Indian banking, the Indian financial system and the Indian tax-payer a great favour.

However, this approach would require consistent and similar response to demands, cajoling and allurement offered in other fields as well, those far removed from the financial system and the economy. The matrix of discretionary favours, unequal treatment under conditions of equality, and private treaties cannot sit alongside a stated resolve and compelling election-time commitment to take on this so-called ‘Delhi culture’.

That is why the decisions taken and things done to help Mr Lalit Modi are at the end of the day extremely problematic. They violate the founding charter, as it were, of the Narendra Modi Government, and chip away at a cornerstone of his mandate. Remedial action is unavoidable. It is both a moral imperative as well as a political necessity. To say the Congress has done similar things and much worse, is not a persuasive excuse. The BJP needs to judge itself by higher standards. Its stakeholders and supporters usually do.

The example of LK Advani would be educative here. The patriarch of the BJP is in the evening of a long and distinguished public career. It is true that in recent years, and particularly in the run-up to the 2014 election, he has not quite been in agreement with mainstream opinion in the party. Nevertheless, he remains a towering figure whose contribution to the revitalisation of the BJP in the 1990s is unmatched. It is worth noting that in all this, despite 60 years in the hot-house of Delhi, Mr Advani’s copybook has not been blotted. There has been scarcely a hint of scandal, wrongdoing or pecuniary misappropriation.

The one time Mr Advani was accused of a financial misdemeanour was in the Jain hawala scandal of the early 1990s. He was charged with accepting pay-offs from businessmen and framed by the Central Bureau of Investigation, on instructions from the PV Narasimha Rao Government. How did he respond? He withdrew from electoral politics till his name was cleared. It cost him a seat in the Lok Sabha elected in 1996, but he refused to change his mind.

This, despite his knowing the accusation was false. This, despite his political opponents knowing the accusation was false. Eventually, the case against him collapsed and he was vindicated. It was in many senses his finest hour. As a model and a template of conduct, surely this is more worthy of emulation and remembrance that what Mr Advani may or may not have said in one or another interview that is of inherently transient memory.

In a thoughtful and thought-provoking section of the Mahabharata, the wise Vidura explains dharma, the path of righteous conduct, to Dhritarashtra. Using an evocative shloka, he talks of how an individual can be renounced for the benefit of the family, how a family can be sacrificed for the benefit of the village, how a village can be given up for the benefit of the country; and finally, how even the entire earth can be shrugged off upon the call of a single person’s principles and conscience. These are moving, immortal words. It is time to heed them.

(Courtesy : ORF)

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