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Can Hindutva Save Modi From The Rafale Scam?

Populist politicians come to power promising to eradicate the corruption, but under their watch country become more corrupt.

Former French President Francois Hollande’s revelation on 21 September 2019 of Narendra Modi government’s role in the selection of Anil Ambani owned Reliance Group as the Indian partner of Dassault has put the Rafale Deal on the center-stage of Indian politics. The unprecedented decision of Prime Minister Modi to purchase 36 fully built Rafale fighters from France in a much higher price than previously negotiated was itself a matter of grave concern. However, the preference for a newly formed Anil Ambani’s Raliance Defense Ltd over the state-owned HAL as the Indian partner gave enough reasons to the Congress Party to sniff the stench of a scam. Since the signing of the agreement, the Congress Party has been consistently demanding the full disclosure of the reasons for the higher cost of the fighter aircrafts, and also, more importantly, questioning the rationale behind the Dassault’s sudden change of heart over its Indian partner.

Anil Ambani, who had described Modi in 2013 as ‘a King among Kings’ had accompanied Prime Minister on his official visit to France, when the Rafale deal was announced. Presence of Ambani and the absence of Defense Minister when Modi took the decision to buy these fighter aircrafts is simply inexplicable. Anil Ambani’s lack of experience in defense sector and his precarious financial situation have led many to envisage the unholy nexus of politicians and business houses in country’s arms procurement. After all, Amir Khan’s movie ‘Rang de Basanti’ is still fresh in most people’s minds. Suspicion over Modi-Ambani nexus in the Rafale Deal has been growing not only because of consistent focus on it by the Congress Party led opposition, but also all sorts of pressure tactics are being used by Anil Ambani and Modi government to not to disclose the information and to mislead the discussion.

Anil Ambani’s legal notices and Narendra Modi’s carrot and stick policies have managed to muzzle the serious investigation of this potential huge scam by the Indian media. French media was silent on this matter as the allegations of wrongdoings were primarily attributed to Indian government. However, a news report in India on 31 August 2018, disclosed that before the Rafale Deal was signed, Anil Ambani’s Reliance Entertainment had produced a film for Francois Hollande’s partner, Julie Gayet. This exposé got French press interested in this emerging scandal as it raised the suspicion of possible case of conflict of interest for Hollande, who had negotiated the Rafale deal with Modi. For Ambani and Modi, it was somewhat possible to manage the media in India, but increasing interest of the French press in this controversy has made it almost impossible to hide the controversy further. After Hollande’s comments, Rafale Deal has even caught the attention of international media, which have already started painting Modi as scam tainted.

There is no doubt that Rafale will be one of the main issues in the 2019 general election in India. Congress Party will not miss any opportunity to use Rafale to strike at Modi. In 2014 election, Narendra Modi had made corruption a major election issue and had promised India to make corruption free. His famous declaration ‘Na Khaunga Na Khane Dunga’ is going to be exploited by the opposition to highlight the betrayal of his pre-election promises. Modi’ slogan of Achhe Din remains elusive as ever and promise to bring back the black money from abroad has been already declared as ‘jumla’. Rising oil prices, falling value of the rupee and failure to create jobs have added further to Modi’s challenges to be able to convince Indian voters to elect him again in 2019.

Besides often projecting him as the mascot of Hindutva, populist Modi has consistently projected him as non-corrupt. Though, there have been many reasons to believe that his autocratic decision of demonetization was a case of corruption, but he has been smartly projecting it as his fight against corruption. The fleeing of the Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi, Mehul Choksi and many other crooks from the country have taken the shine off Modi’s well-cultivated not-corrupt image to some extent. However, the Rafale scandal is important for the opposition Congress as it puts the culpability directly on Modi as he was the one who had solely taken the decision to purchase the fighters.

Narendra Modi being entangled in a corruption scandal was a matter of time only. As Transparency International has pointed out, populist politicians come to power promising to eradicate the corruption, but under their watch country become more corrupt. The sole emphasis on one leader, as it has taken place in India under Modi, accountability and transparency take the back seats. These populist leaders dislike the complicated democratic systems of a modern government and their ‘strong man’ syndrome guide them to take decisions bypassing regular procedures. Modi’s decision to set aside previous negotiations on Rafale is part of that syndrome, in which the absence of mechanisms of checks and balance facilitate the entanglement of business and government. The absence of a free and transparent media had also emboldened Modi to take such a highly controversial and arbitrary decision.

Populist politician like Modi combine populism with religious or ethnic superiority and authoritarianism. Similar traits are seen these days in Donald Trump in the USA, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Viktor Orban in Hungary. These leaders are dividers not uniters of the society. Under these authoritarian populists, corruption thrives but they try to keep the focus of the voters away from their faults to the manufactured fault lines of the society.  Several rightwing populist politicians in many European countries, like the Netherlands, Austria and France regularly get away from corruption scandals. Their supporters look up to them as crusaders against ‘foreign’ population and culture and their corruption gets justified in the name of protecting larger national interest by their supporters. Following that formula and to divert the attention from Rafale Scam, Hindutva politics is going to be played by Modi much more forcefully in India before 2019 general election. However, corruption scandals have ended the political career as well of many populist autocrats like Berlusconi, Thaksin, Estrada and Fujimori in the recent past. Whether Rafale will put Modi in that list or his Hindutva politics targeting minorities will be able to save him is a matter of speculation. It is for sure though, because of Rafale scam, Modi has nothing but to rely on Hindutva plank only to plan his return to power in the next election.

The writer is professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden.

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