T N Ninan: Another Mr Clean

A sure way to win politically in the country is to project yourself as someone untouched by corruption, or as someone who will clean the Augean stables of Indian politics. Rajiv Gandhi was projected as Mr Clean in 1984, in a country that was getting jaded by corruption charges; partly because of that, he swept the elections at the end of that year. Then, even as the Bofors scandal destroyed that image, VP Singh had grabbed the mantle of Mr Clean by launching tax raids on businessmen, arresting some high-profile ones, and ordering a probe into a defence deal. Additionally, this product of a minor princeling family who used to be addressed as “, fakir hai”).

A quarter of a century later, Arvind Kejriwal exploited the India Against Corruption movement that was a reaction to the scandals engulfing the Manmohan Singh government, and catapulted his Aam Aadmi Party to power in Delhi. Other state politicians too have got repeated traction with voters by projecting an image that is free (or mostly free) of the corruption taint — Naveen Patnaik in Odisha, Nitish Kumar in Bihar and Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal. Manmohan Singh got initial credit for being personally clean, and his government’s re-election in 2009 may have had something to do with that. Now we have Narendra Modi.

During a dozen years as chief minister of Gujarat, Mr Modi managed to avoid any hint of government scandal though he was known to be close to a couple of businessmen who themselves did not have the cleanest reputations. He has maintained that record during two-and-a-half years as prime minister, and frequently drawn attention to the contrast with what went before. So even though the BJP must be getting funded no differently from the other political parties, Mr Modi has a level of credibility on the corruption issue that no other politician on the national stage can claim.

This would explain why, despite the gambit coming unstuck in every way imaginable, and backfiring economically, Mr Modi is able to carry conviction with people across the country — and thereby avoid the backlash of anger that otherwise should have been inevitable by now. Reporters who have travelled through Bihar, western UP, Maharashtra and elsewhere report uniformly that, while people complain of the difficulties that they are experiencing because of the lack of currency, they remain supportive so far of Mr Modi’s initiative. They have bought the narrative that the prime minister has taken a bold step to root out corruption. Unless the economic disruption continues unabated, the BJP’s pay-off could come in the UP state elections early in 2017. What is more, Mr Modi shows every intention of continuing down this road. As an anti-corruption crusader, Mr Modi could successfully divert attention from an indifferent economic track record.

There are two dangers. The first is that any image contrary to the underlying reality could come unstuck. If the BJP government gets caught in any fund-raising scandal, or Mr Modi in a crony capitalist deal, then Mr Modi would be vulnerable to the old charge of being a “feku” (fake). Second, if any further anti-corruption gambits, such as one that attacks benami property holdings or which gets seen as a return of “tax terrorism”, causes further economic chaos, then a suffering populace might stop caring that much about whether Mr Modi is clean or not; they would focus on other, more pressing concerns. These are the issues that should worry Mr Modi. On its part, what the country should be concerned about is the prospect of a prime minister who is willing to sacrifice economic gain and risk large-scale job losses in exchange for personal popularity — as he has already done with notebandi. So, contrary to the title of the movie, once is enough.

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