Corruption as an issue in Indian Election Campaigns: the 2024 story

It is puzzling why the Indian people, so far, have not risen against the Electoral Bond Scam; is it the brazen entrenched media silence on the issue which is the cause?
Original Image: The Print

Premchand is said to have observed that communalism in India is shy of coming out directly as communalism. It rather disguises itself to appear through the cultural route. Likewise, each time an election has been held to replace the regime, communal forces have ridden the “anti-corruption” campaign. The forthcoming election 2024 is possibly the one exception where it is the other way round. Now, the non-communal forces seek to oust the communal forces through their campaign against corruption. By the time the 1967 elections were held, corruption, poverty, food crisis, etc., were the chief concerns of the people.

I am someone who has been teaching postgraduate courses in post-independence history for decades. My mind goes back to the stirring speech of Feroze Gandhi (1912-1960) in the Lok Sabha on December 16, 1957 [Incidentally, December 16 is also the birthday of my daughter whom we adopted and lost at the hands of a hasty and therefore botched up juridical pronouncement, arguably succumbing to the regressive Muslim Personal Law].

The then Prime Minister, Jawahar Lal Nehru was a quintessential democrat, save some debatable blemishes. Feroze was on the treasury benches, acting more ferocious than any qualified opposition leader could have acted. As we look around today, when parts of world are moving rapidly towards electoral autocracy combined with ethnic hatred, we note with great regret that rather than strengthening and deepening our democracy, we have been eroding it significantly.

Feroze Gandhi had (1957) exposed the officials of the State Bank of India (SBI) and of Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) of India involved in (or subjected to) the scam; he was unsparing about the Finance Minister as well. The shady and corrupt transactions of Mr. Mundhra were exposed. Nehru didn’t raise the bogey of the foreign-hand in order to silence Feroze. I therefore strongly recommend — to postgraduate students taking my course—that they read the wonderfully written text of the speech that was delivered with great passion in the Lok Sabha on December 16, 1957. One remembers Feroze today, precisely because of this unwavering speech. Rajni Patel wrote in the Foreword to one famous biography, (Shashi Bhushan, 1977) of Feroze, “At a time we are once again concerned with refashioning our democratic values and revitalizing our public institutions, it is good to recapitulate the work and ideals of a pioneer” that Feroze was.

Had it been today, the Parliamentarian (Feroze Gandhi) could have been chastised as a seditious religious minority out to wreck “Bharat Mata”. Those were the days of a fledgling, proud, strong and emergent democracy; not the sham period we live through today. The then PM was not scared, not insecure and frightened to be losing his office. The regime of that time allowed the debate to take place and it was also widely reported widely in the media. Incidentally, the very same parliamentarian had fought successfully to legislate a law permitting press-coverage of Parliamentary proceedings. Contrast this with the current scenario when our Prime Minister has not had the moral courage to address a single press conference in two terms, that is the last 10 years, and this fact does not appear to disturb the electorate.

Subsequently, in August 1965, there were food riots in India, student upsurges in the Bihar and Hindi belt against corruption, inflation and unemployment. On August 9, 1965, students, employees and the opposition had gheraoed the Bihar Assembly in Patna. They had battled with the police. Herbert Heidenreich (1968), in his research-essay, The Anatomy of a Riot, notes,

“The police resorted to firing in eighteen places throughout the state as railway stations were sacked, government offices and homes of Cabinet members burned, and warehouses looted. Order was finally restored after five days; in many places only when army units were deployed. Journalists and other observers tend to attach adjectives to their descriptions of political violence in India. Thus there are ‘communal’ riots, ‘food’ riots, or ‘language’ riots”

This is how the 1967 elections came to be held against the incumbent regime. We don’t yet witness any such phenomenon in India today after the expose of the Electoral Bond Scam in 2024! Though, we live through, otherwise, an “age of mob fury”, era of lynching, an age of easy provocations and most brutal violence. One reason of course is that we have too many non-state actors, of course, in complicity with the regime, enjoying an impunity from the state, who resort to group violence. Is that why the expose of the biggest scam in the history of independent ever doesn’t provoke the nationalist commitment of the vigilante groups?

Another reason is obvious. “Mainstream newspapers” (Hindi and English and many other regional languages as also the commercial TV news channels) have gone mostly silent. At best, they are reluctantly informing us about these scandals with least possible quantum of information. The best known anchors, shrill when it comes to promoting stigma against vulnerable sections or brazenly promoting one leader and his party, have also been rendered voiceless.

The anti-Emergency campaign and the run up to the 1977 elections are too well known to be re-counted here in detail. Ironically, some of the anti-Emergency crusaders of the 1970s have turned into the practitioners of undeclared Emergency today.

The 1989 elections were held on the back of a campaign against the Bofors Scandal (1987). The then Finance Minister, V P Singh,  resigned from government and led the oppositional coalition to victory and formed a short-lived government, supported by both the left and right. Over decades, VP Singh’s allegations have turned out to be either exaggerated or baseless. There were other mistakes too, that Rajiv Gandhi had committed. He had surrendered “to the forces of prejudice, illiberalism and fundamentalism” in the case of Shahbano Judgment of 23 April 1985, which was upturned through a parliamentary legislation in 1986. This immensely contributed to the rise of majoritarian forces, candidly confessed even by its chief villains, the Muslim clergy, who also nationalized the local dispute of Ayodhya. (See Abulhasan Ali Miyan Nadvi’s Urdu memoir, Karwaan-e-Zindagi. 1988, vol. 3, chapter 4). Rajiv Gandhi, however, had enough grace to have later confessed to the journalist Vir Sanghvi (A Rude Life, 2021) “I was young. I made mistakes”. V P Singh-Arun Nehru combine targeted Rajiv Gandhi like anything. Their partner-in-crime, so to say, was the English daily Indian Express (IE). This is a newspaper, which has today given space to several right wing ideologues and official spokespersons. Ajaz Ashraf writes (Mid Day, April 3, 2023),

“Since May 2014, when the BJP swept into power, its members have altogether written 640 opinion pieces over approximately 3,000 days. This means a piece from the RSS-BJP stable was being published in one of the three newspapers every fifth day. Of the 640 pieces, IE accounted for 337, HT 97 and TOI 206. IE’s figures are high partly because its archive is the best among the three. Its opinion pages are vibrant—proprietors and editors fear a backlash only when they speak out against the government.

I found that 399 of the 640 pieces, or 62.34 per cent, mention Prime Minister Narendra Modi or his government at least once. In one piece, RSS leader Ram Madhav mentions Modi 20 times, in another 18 times. Former President Ram Nath Kovind referred to Modi 22 times in just one piece written, thankfully, after he demitted office. Union Minister Bhupender Yadav did so 21 times in an article. Most BJP spokespersons possess a sycophantic inclination to needlessly repeat Modi’s name in their pieces.

Guess they owe it to Modi for turning them into writers. Since May 2014, Madhav has written 101 pieces for IE, 25 for HT and six for TOI. The IE index of authors shows he began writing only in May 2014. Former Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu has written 68 pieces across the three newspapers, Bhupender Yadav 34, MP Dr Rakesh Sinha 31 for IE, for which former minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has penned 22. Spokesperson Anil Baluni has 26 bylines for IE and his colleague Shehzad Poonawalla 20 for TOI.

The 2014 elections were held in the background of the “India Against Corruption” (IAC) campaign of 2011, led by a non-descript “non-ideological” old man Anna Hazare and thereafter, Arvind Kejriwal. Soon, it became pretty clear that majoritarian right wing forces were surreptitiously supporting and sustaining the anti-corruption movement. Very few academics and public intellectuals had the foresight to warn us against such a dangerous anti-ideological movement of the majoritarian forces. By the 2014 elections, India underwent a change almost beyond recognition. What India and the regime stands for today, repudiates almost everything that the freedom movement and the Constitution envisions and commits itself to.

In most of the milestone moments of the electoral history of independent India, the “progressive” forces (Socialists and parts of the Leftists) have aligned with the right wing majoritarian forces. With every of such moment, the majoritarian forces gained greater political strength, social base and institutional penetrations. By now, they have become the hegemons, aided by crony capital and the state institutions at the service of their partisan politics to hound and harass the opposition with. Rahul Gandhi is almost a lone crusader to be going into the masses through his Yatras amidst acute resource-crunch and state-hounding.

As yet there is no biography of Rahul Gandhi. Though, there are not less than two, unflattering, accounts (viz., Sugata Srinivasaraju’s, Strange Burdens and Dayashankar Mishra’s Hindi book) cataloguing the viciously hostile political atmosphere in which he is operating.

Besides the anti-Muslim communal hatred, what else is/are the factor(s) which could possibly explain why we don’t we see a popular outrage on the ground against the Electoral Bond Scam which financially not only cripples but also asphyxiates the opposition to death? This is no longer a concern of a specific oppositional political party alone. It is a question of democracy itself. Why 85% of Indians wish to have autocratic regime?

I am really puzzled about this “indifference” of the people towards the expose of the electoral Bond Scam (corruption). I ask myself, are we no longer thinking humans? Have we, as a nation, become machines controlled by our vicious political leaders? Has the governing party semitized the majority like some religions, where we refuse to evaluate our faith (our politics) with reason? We remain faithful followers of our preferred political party and leader round the clock all the time when, in a vibrant democracy, we are expected to be voters of a specific party only for the polling day, and for the rest, become vigilant and critical citizens. Or, have we, all or most of us, turned into card-holding cadres? We react to the political party we have voted for, in a manner as if we are afraid of committing a heresy against our faith, that is, the wrong acts of the political party of our choice? Why have we become a prisoner, a fanatic supporter of messianic, cult politics, hence a retrogressive, backward looking nation?

After all, way back in November 1937 (The Modern Review, Calcutta), a pseudonym Chanakya, had written against this attitude which “potentially paves the path to Caesarism and dictatorship”. We later got to know that he was none other than Nehru writing against himself. It was his way of training Indians against cult worship. This phenomenon of cult politics was a sad truth for provincial politics in the latter half of the last century, when caste-based, corrupt, nepotist, dynastic parties have had turned into a faith-like creed or sect, in the name of social justice. By the second decade of the current century we magnified this tendency to an alarming level? Why are we in love with electoral autocracy, authoritarianism? Why are we endorsing institutional meltdown? Have we become a psychopathic case? Are we suffering from the Stockholm Syndrome-having fallen in love with our oppressors and tormentors?

The present phenomenon cannot be explained away by just faith-based hatred of one group of citizens against another! True, minority conservatism and communalism has contributed immensely to the strengthening of the majoritarian forces, particularly in the 1980s. True also that the liberal-left forces have often supported (or gone silent on) minority regressivism. This resulted into their gradual but inevitable erosion of the credibility of the liberal-left. So much so that today, increasingly larger number of Muslim narrative-making groups, influencers, columnists and academics are falling into the lap of the dispensation to extract small favours such as vice chancellorship of a few selected “Muslim” institutions. This is amply demonstrated by Felix Pal (2020). Quite a few of these Muslim “notables” do have antecedence of affiliation with the Muslim Right Wing as well as having extracted favour from the ruling Congress (in the pre-NaMo era).

Nonetheless, there is certainly more to the majoritarian resurgence in India (and beyond) in the recent times, in a phase of late-capital crisis and crony capitalism. Identity politics and competitive communalisms constitute only a part of the current crisis in India. Today, in the social media, saffron narratives are most prevalent. Anti-communal narrative- making stuff is less visible than the pro-establishment propaganda. “Neoliberal psychopolitics is a technology of domination that stabilizes and perpetuates the prevailing system by means of psychological programming and steering”, says, Byung-Chul Han, in his 2017 booklet, Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power. But how to get out of this is not something coming out as lucidly from this philosopher, Han. Have we, as a collective, been turned into “unintelligent”, or “stupid” or “idiot”? We are into the era of mass stupidity? If so, what is the possible answer, being offered by Han? He says,

“The idiot is a modern-day heretic. Etymologically, heresy means ‘choice’. Thus, the heretic is one who commands free choice: the courage to deviate from orthodoxy. As a heretic, the idiot represents a figure of resistance opposing the violence of consensus. The idiot preserves the magic of the outsider. Today, in light of increasingly coercive conformism, it is more urgent than ever to heighten heretical consciousness”.

In my very limited understanding, Rahul Gandhi, much maligned as the so called Pappu, and everyone engaged in the epic resistance, can be said to be pursuing the noble act and mission of raising the heretical consciousness of the masses who have sadly been turned into unquestioning faithful (bhakts) of the semitized and oppressive political establishment. May this tribe of “idiots” rise in this era of despondency and desperation! We need larger number of “idiots” to take away the elements of bhakti from us and to shake us to realize how badly we are being looted by a handful of the capitalists. These crony capitalists have snatched away employment from our educated and skilled youth. This band of select two dozen or so capitalists are busy destroying all the wealth of the nation including minerals, water, forests, environment, the very essence of being humans. Has allegience to them overtaken all the state institutions.


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