After some conciliatory, but awkward, gestures meant to soothe the prevalent anti-corruption mood in the country, major political parties are again doing business with those tainted by corruption and criminal charges. Sushma Swaraj’s public stance against admitting the Bellary strongman B Sriramulu and rebel Haryana Congress MLA Venod Sharma into the NDA reveals the gulf between words and actions.
Sriramulu is a close associate of G Janardhana Reddy who was indicted in the Karnakara iron-ore mining scam. Sharma’s proximity to Bhupinder Singh Hooda and the revival of his businesses in recent years, besides the vain attempts to save his son, Manu Sharma, in the Jessica Lal case, should have made the BJP wary. But Sushma may not get her way as the local BJP units in Karnataka and Haryana believe these leaders will benefit the NDA electorally.
The state of affairs is no different in the ruling Congress party. The alliance sealed with Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD in Bihar refutes the high ground staked by Rahul Gandhi on the corruption issue. Rahul claimed credit for gifting the country a Lokpal and pulling the plug on an ordinance negating a Supreme Court judgment disqualifying convicted legislators. Despite ending Lalu’s electoral career, Rahul, by allying with a tainted politician convicted for cheating the government exchequer, has signalled the limits of his political will. Rahul’s response in a recent televised interview — that his alliance with the RJD was with ideas rather than individuals — betrayed his loose footing on the corruption issue. Even Sushma’s latest position is a turnaround. For a decade since she took on Sonia Gandhi at Bellary in 1999, Sushma was known as a patron of the Reddy brothers. Only after the Lokayukta report on the mining scam, did she distance herself.
Like the Congress, the BJP has also junked the anti-corruption plank, when it re-admitted BS Yeddyurappa. Forced to seek his resignation over allegations of involvement in land and mining scams, the BJP is now on a weak wicket after the assembly election defeat. With caste equations at the back of their minds, neither the Congress or the BJP seem to mind the taint of being associated with Yeddyurappa or Lalu.
Despite the public discourse surrounding corruption and criminalisation of politics, the inability of political parties to change course is distressing. Over 30 per cent of MPs had criminal charges against them while 14 per cent of them faced serious charges. A question merits asking: how to stigmatise the criminal record in politics?
Even the disqualification of convicted legislators happened through the judiciary’s intervention. The unity forged among politicians to negate the judgment unravelled under sustained public pressure. The Election Commission has raised the question of barring individuals — against whom courts have framed criminal or corruption charges — from fighting elections. If it fructifies, it will help eliminate in one broad sweep, many criminal elements from Indian politics. Despite the opportunistic alliances, the Congress and the BJP can be expected to put up a brave face on their anti-corruption credentials. This is an election that will be fought on a wide range of issues — development, price rise, economic slowdown, governance, jobs, law and order, national security and corruption. The hope that these multiple issues will get conflated and hypocritical stances on individual issues will be ignored by voters on polling day drives such political wheeling-dealing. Politics is the art of the possible, but decriminalising politics looks impossible in today’s scenario.