Political slugfest could derail key Indian reforms
December 18 2015 09:08 PM

There are unlikely to be any outright winners in the latest confrontation between India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Congress over the now defunct National Herald newspaper case which entails a legal battle involving party president Sonia Gandhi and her son and vice president Rahul Gandhi.
What is more, there will be an unsavoury twist to the case with less than comforting implications for the BJP if the Congress’s crown prince carries out his threat of courting imprisonment when the two leaders appear in court today. Even if the ruling party dubs such an act as theatrical, it will be aware that the sight of Rahul Gandhi behind bars cannot but be embarrassing for the BJP.
Such a dramatic turn of events may fuel speculation that the absence of a sound legal defence has compelled the Congress to turn the encounter into a political duel. But such tricks of the trade are an acceptable part of democratic politics. For the BJP, the immediate problem will be the future of the crucial Goods and Services Tax (GST) Bill since the Congress is bound to use the charge of being a victim of political vendetta to stall parliament.
If the fate of the GST Bill is sealed for the time being, the BJP may wonder whether the penchant of the maverick in its ranks, Subramanian Swamy, to involve his adversaries in court cases may have backfired. The BJP may argue that Swamy has been acting on his own in pursuing the National Herald case and that it is mean-minded of the Congress to mix up the GST Bill with its own legal difficulties.
The Congress meanwhile has found a supporter in Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal state. Besides, both the Congress and Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress party have a point in saying that the interest which the central government has shown in the National Herald case is not visible in scams in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, both states governed by the BJP.
Nothing demonstrated the extra interest that the authorities have taken in the National Herald case more clearly than the transfer of an investigating official who had dismissed the charges against the Congress leaders. The transfer was quickly followed by the appointment of another official and the revival of the case after Swamy had accused the previous incumbent of having been favourably disposed towards the Congress.
It is now up to the judiciary to address the nitty-gritty of the affair. But public interest will be focused more on how the political skirmishes unfold than in the details of the case.
As Sonia Gandhi’s comment that she is Indira Gandhi’s daughter-in-law shows, she and her party have in mind the blunder committed by the Janata government in 1977 when it tried to implicate the doughty former prime minister in legal tangles. Indira Gandhi’s spirited response paved the way for the Congress’s return to power in 1980.
History may not always repeat itself, but even if the Congress under Sonia Gandhi is not what the Congress was under Indira Gandhi, the BJP also is not as much of a winner as it was last year, as its massive defeats in Delhi and Bihar state elections have shown.
For all practical purposes, therefore, it is going to be a Tom and Jerry show with neither emerging with flying colours. Each side will try to hit the other where it hurts the most - the Congress by creating a ruckus in parliament even if it earns the reputation of being petty-minded, and the BJP by arguing that none in the Congress’s first family - Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and the party chief’s son-in-law Robert Vadra - is above the law.
The endless slugfest, however, between the two “national” parties (although neither has a presence in all parts of the country) carries the threat of not only derailing the reforms - Swamy has suggested that the GST can be dumped for the sake of fighting corruption - but also of fostering the impression that the parliamentary system is becoming unworkable.
It is unfortunate that at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi adopted a conciliatory tone in parliament, a member of his party acted in a manner which introduced fresh complications in the relations between the BJP and the Congress. It is almost as if the right hand does not know what the left is doing.

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