Rahul Gandhi's offensive against Narendra Modi on personal corruption has opened up a new political and legal debate. Of Course, what the Congress vice president alleged in a political rally in Gujarat's Mehsana last week (and has been at it ever since) is not anything new.
Lawyer and activist Prashant Bhushan had mentioned it earlier this year in his complaint to the investigative agencies on the lack of follow-up action regarding the diary notings and\or the excel sheets which were seized during the raids at the Birla and Sahara offices in 2013 and 2014 respectively.
L K Advani resigned from his Lok Sabha seat and vowed to return to the august house only after his name was cleared by the judiciary [in the Jain Hawala case].
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had talked about it on the floor of the assembly on 15 November. Rahul Gandhi's diatribe is merely a repetition of what is already in the public domain. It is not quite the high-intensity earthquake that he made it out to be.
But there is no denying that the Congress leader's reiteration of the charges has given rise to a national debate. The case now awaits a legal outcome as Prashant Bhushan has already moved the Supreme Court for a court-monitored special investigation team to probe the matter.
The BJP has taken the principled stand that diary notings cannot be adduced as legal evidence; ironically, though, the ruling party is using diary notings presented in an Italian court as evidence of corruption against Sonia Gandhi in the AgustaWestland case! (There is a double standard of the Congress as well—it excoriates the basis of the AgustaWestland charges, but justifies the Sahara-Birla graft charges based on similar circumstances.)
A three-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India, in a judgement on the celebrated Jain Hawala case delivered on 2 March, 1998, had made it absolutely clear that diary entries can be accepted as the lead evidence, but not as the sole evidence; the court would need corroborating evidence for indictment. The Supreme Court had found one of the diaries presented by the prosecution admissible as evidence under Section 34 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872. Investigative agencies were ordained to do a thorough investigation, the diary entries being the starting point.
It is a different matter that the prosecution could not provide corroborative evidence (or as some would say that the prosecution was under immense political pressure to present a weak chargesheet as those accused of receiving illegal gratification, as per the diary notings, were major political leaders of the country—cutting across the political divide— including former prime minister P V Narasimha Rao.
It is to the credit of L K Advani, the then leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, that he resigned from his Lok Sabha seat and vowed to return to the august house only after his name was cleared by the judiciary. His exoneration led to his triumphant return and reinforced his personal image as a role model of honesty.
The Birla and Sahara documents, seized by the income tax department and the CBI, name several chief ministers among other top political leaders, cutting across political affiliations, as recipients of illegal gratification. The most prominent of these names is that of the former chief minister of Gujarat, and now PM, Narendra Modi.
Had Rajiv Gandhi set up a full-fledged enquiry himself, he could have saved his personal reputation as well as his political power.
Narendra Modi has a formidable reputation for financial honesty. What should he do now? Of course, he cannot do an Advani. Advani was in the opposition in the Lok Sabha when he resigned, so it did not have any ripple effect on the administration of the country. But Narendra Modi is the Prime Minister. His resignation would destabilise the government.
Yet, if he wants to follow the spirit of Advani's action, Modi should institute a judicial enquiry on his own, without waiting for a Supreme Court verdict. That would reinforce his own image as an anti-corruption crusader. Had he already done so, he would have pre-empted a Prashant Bhushan or a Rahul Gandhi waging a legal and political offensive against him on charges of corruption. Better late than never.
Narendra Modi must draw a lesson from the failure of Rajiv Gandhi to act against personal corruption charges when he was the prime minister. In the mid-1980s, Rajiv Gandhi had the same formidable image of personal incorruptibility that Narendra Modi enjoys today.
A young, suave, tech-savvy prime minister had taken office after winning an electoral landslide in 1984. His famous lament that "15 paisa out of a rupee reaches the poor" and his equally famous pledge to reverse the process (that at least 85 paisa out of every rupee intended for the poor would reach them) made him appear as an anti-corruption messiah.
But just three years down the line, the Bofors explosion happened. When the Swedish media reported about the possible pay-offs to the top political bosses in India, Rajiv Gandhi came under a cloud because of Sonia Gandhi's association with Ottavio Quattrocchi, the Italian businessman who was supposed to have acted as the conduit for bribes in the Bofors scandal.
If he wants to follow the spirit of Advani's action, Modi should institute a judicial enquiry on his own, without waiting for a Supreme Court verdict.
The opposition parties made a strong plea for an independent judicial investigation. But Rajiv Gandhi stubbornly refused to institute such an enquiry. V P Singh emerged as the new messiah of the anti-corruption crusade, while Rajiv Gandhi's credibility was destroyed and he was swept out of power in the next election.
The V P Singh government instituted a full-scale enquiry into the Bofors scam which was further intensified by the BJP government which came in power in 1998. But the Supreme Court finally exonerated Rajiv Gandhi and his family of all corruption charges in the absence of any credible evidence.
Had Rajiv Gandhi set up a full-fledged enquiry himself, he could have saved his personal reputation as well as his political power. Possibly, he could have saved his life as well.
Narendra Modi has both examples in front of him; one, that of his own leader, L K Advani, and the other of the leader of the rival Congress. Advani re-affirmed his image of personal honesty by his bold decision to resign and succeeded in leading his party to a sweeping victory in the next election. Rajiv, by his decision not to set up an enquiry, lost political power in the subsequent election, and his memory continues to be tainted by the Bofors ghost in popular perception even though he was exonerated by the highest court of the land years ago.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has to make an urgent decision now—follow in the footsteps of Advani or that of the father of Rahul Gandhi, his bitterest political foe today. This decision may have a lot of bearing on his political future.