The defining image of the 1989 Lok Sabha elections was VP Singh campaigning across the country and claiming that he had in his pocket the Swiss bank account number where the Bofors payoff money had been deposited. Singh won the election and became prime minister but never revealed the account number. Nearly 30 years later, Rahul Gandhi is hoping to do to Narendra Modi what Singh did to his father Rajiv
Mr Gandhi now routinely claims that the prime minister is corrupt and has struck deals to protect his VVIP friends in the Rafael aircraft deal and the Nirav Modi banking scam. He offers no direct proof of any prime ministerial involvement but throws enough muck in the hope that some of it will stick. Unlike Singh, Mr Gandhi cannot claim to be a 'Mr Clean' since he carries the tainted baggage of his party but he does have a similar anti-incumbent advantage.
On the face of it, the allegations couldn't have come at a worse time for the BJP and prime minister Modi. The tail end of year four of a government is usually when the spectre of general elections loom large. Every move is driven solely by re-election calculations. For the opposition, this is open season, a period of 'hit and run' politics where the singular aim is to diminish the ruling party's credibility in the eyes of the voter, a period where perceptions matter as much as reality.
It is precisely this perception game that is being fought at the moment. For three years and a bit, Narendra Modi was able to ride high on the aura of being an incorruptible moral crusader, a political 'chowkidar' who could proudly boast, 'na khaoonga, na khane doonga.' It was an image that Mr Modi was able to contrast successfully with his predecessor who was lampooned as 'Maun-Mohan' Singh, a weak and silent leader who had allowed vaulting corruption to flourish under his watch. It is an image which he seeks to protect today when his government has finally arrested Karthi Chidambaram, the son of the
former finance minister, after dithering for more than a year.
That there is no independent proof to corroborate any charge of kickbacks in the Rafael deal doesn't seem to matter. That Nirav Modi may have little in common with the prime minister apart from the surname or that a scam in a local PSU bank branch can hardly be the direct responsibility of the prime minister's office also seems irrelevant to the cacophonous political discourse. Just the optics of the prime minister being photographed in Davos with a beaming Nirav only last month or, worse still, endearingly addressing Nirav's fugitive uncle and business partner, Mehul Choksi, as 'Mehulbhai' at a private function at the prime minister's residence is enough to suggest that this is a case of suspected political cronyism (the old Hindi cliche 'daal mein kuch kaala hai').
Indeed, in a noisy media environment where sharp sound bites and tweets matter more than substance, Rahul Gandhi has, in a sense, borrowed from the BJP's 2014 election playbook. Then, the BJP repeatedly raised the Rs 1.76 lakh crore telecom 'presumptive loss' figure as evidence of Congress perfidy; no amount of long winded explanations from the UPA ministers could rub off the number from the popular imagination. Now, when Mr Gandhi throws up Rs 11,000 crores and counting as the loss in the NiMo scam, no one is actually doing the maths: it is simply a large enough number to leave the common man
fulminating at a bankrupted banking system where VVIPs can loot and scoot even while the ordinary bank depositor gets harsh notices after a monthly default.
The Modi government could legitimately claim that the NiMo scam first began in 2011 when the UPA was in power but went undetected. They could argue that the practise of granting hefty bank loans to favoured corporates without due diligence was a UPA failing. Since the prime minister likes to target the Nehru-Gandhi family for the country's multiple crisis, he could even blame Indira Gandhi for the original 'sin' of bank nationalisation. But the truth is, the sloth and corruption of pre-2014 India cannot be used as an excuse in 2018. After all, the voters defeated the UPA in 2014 for their failed governance. You cannot seek 'double' punishment for the same crime. While the Congress with its long trail of scams cannot claim the moral high ground on corruption, past dishonesties cannot become a permanent noose for the BJP to hang their rivals with.
Which is where the Modi claim of being the no nonsense 'chowkidar' comes unstuck. You cannot claim to guard the country's treasury after the vaults have been robbed under your watch. The government's argument that it has put in place a legal architecture that toughens anti graft laws will carry little weight unless wilful defaulters are acted against, their properties seized, the monies recovered and the individuals put in jail. No doubt the benami act and the bankruptcy code are steps in the right direction but unless there is visible action against the 'big fish', a sense of scepticism will persist amongst an increasingly cynical voting class that corruption is an issue where major political parties are only shadow-boxing.
The question now is: can NaMo bring back NiMo to the face the law in this country, or will the jeweller become another exiled fugitive whose very presence in safe foreign climes becomes an embarrassment for the Modi government? In 1989, VP Singh pointed the needle of suspicion at Italian businessman Ottavio Quattorochi but never brought him to justice once the election was won; Modi needs to bring his namesake back or face the charge of not having walked the talk.
Post-script: In the Karnataka election campaign, the prime minister has gone on the offensive, accusing Congress chief minister Siddaramaiah of being a corrupt 'Mr 10 per cent'. But that he has chosen to make the charge with the BJP's chief ministerial face BS Yeddyurappa by his side only weakens the moral and political argument. Wasn't Yeddyurappa jailed and forced out of office over corruption charges not too long ago? Or is corruption quite simply the ultimate political equalizer?