Lalit Modi, Narendra Modi and the importance of Arvind Kejriwal

New Delhi,Satish Mutatkar: Let’s take a breather from LynchMob TV that has been on since last week, to look at the larger picture.

Lalit Modi, even if all charges against him are proved to be true, would hardly be the first Indian buccaneer to game the system. He would be in illustrious company – Dhirubhai Ambani, Subroto Roy, the Saradha chit-fund tycoons – are some names that come to mind immediately. That all of them were/are well connected politically, is merely a recognition of a condition which must exist a priori for them to achieve whatever they did, good or bad. Maybe lots of both. At the height of a newspaper crusade against Dhirubhai Ambani a few decades back, he was painted as the worst possible blackguard; today he is seen as a demi-god of Indian entrepreneurship history and is so worshipped by countless traders, employees and small investors. Certainly, it can be argued that the system under the Nehru-Indira Gandhi model had become so entrepreneurship stifling that the situation cried out for a gutsy guy who could bend or break a nonsensical law or two to drive home some economic lessons.

Lalit Modi’s case is slightly different and while the legal position of his alleged financial transgressions is difficult to know at this point, history will always credit him with being the father of the super successful IPL, with all the incredible wealth and employment opportunities it created. When he was at the helm, his passion was there for all to see and when the security/timetable of his baby clashed with the 2009 General Elections, he shifted his gravy train to South Africa in a blink. In effect, saying that in his domain, the Indian Government’s support was only incidental. Once the league succeeded, there obviously were and are many in the BCCI who wanted an opportunity to oust him and seize the ATM. His complacency tripped him up and after the dust had settled, he found himself in London, getting tied up in a legal paper chase.

The purpose of these thumbnail sketches is merely to underline one point about the buccaneer template: buccaneers are good, maybe even great, for their stakeholders, but they are so single-minded in their pursuits that they think nothing of riding roughshod over the laws of the land or the wishes of governments. Governments and politicians are merely ‘means’ or ‘obstructions’ for them in the pursuit of their dreams.

Let’s look at the picture from the politician’s side. Forget the corrupt politicians for the moment and think only of the honest ones. Why do honest politicians need buccaneers? Answer: publicity/image building or election funding. This brings us straight to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In the one year that he has been in power at the Centre, Narendra Modi has personally done stellar work in two areas – foreign affairs and streamlining of administrative procedures. Yes, a lot remains to be done, but the stories one hears of 90-year-old pensioners no longer having to go through the tedium of proving they are alive or the fewer permissions required to set up industries, point to only one thing: Narendra Modi understands the ground-level working conditions, perhaps better than any of India’s Prime Ministers to date. So yes, I do think he has the potential to be a great PM but when one thinks of the campaign which brought him to office, there is no way that the role of money power can be ignored. This merely underlines the ugly reality that even honest politicians believe in the axiomatic nature of the proposition that ‘elections are expensive and needs huge amounts of money’. The moment this proposition is accepted, politicians become dependent on the moneybags and as long as this reality remains, the Election Commission can make a hundred codes of conduct, knowing fully well that they will be flouted and that they will still be unable to do much about it.

All funding comes with ‘conditions apply’. If the deals were only about simplification of procedures — soft terms, as it were — there would be the temptation to look the other way for the sake of ‘the greater good’ being achieved administratively. No such luck. Hard nosed Indian businessmen do not deal in soft terms, so the eventual bill in terms of favours and policy tweaks becomes embarrassingly large. With an alert media, this practically guarantees that throughout its term, every government will be hounded by stories about undue favours. The point is that whatever happens to Sushma Swaraj, Vasundhara Raje and Lalit Modi is really inconsequential as part of the larger picture. This cast of characters may go backstage in the next news cycle, but the same drama will be played out as another cast takes centre-stage. There is zero chance for a break in this pattern unless there is fresh thinking at the top and this is where Arvind Kejriwal’s example becomes important.

Arvind Kejriwal is the latest to demonstrate that the ‘axiom’ of money being essential for winning elections is no axiom at all. There are many issues with AAP and Arvind Kejriwal, especially his inability to sustain political relationships for long and the lack of any coherent economic policy, but we must remain grateful to him for bringing election funding back into political discourse. Congress and BJP both are and will remain indifferent to the subject for obvious reasons.

But Narendra Modi need not remain indifferent. Does he need any of his party strongmen (and increasingly strong women) to retain power? No. Does he need any moneybag backers to retain power? No. What were assets on the way to becoming PM are fast turning out to be liabilities and he must get ready to ease them out of his support structures. Modi is in a unique position – it is difficult to recall any PM in the last 30 years being so blessed – and so he must demonstrate seriousness about electoral reforms. If he makes an effort to curb the power of money in the upcoming state elections and helps the Election Commission nail the transgressors, including those in his party, he will get serious traction across the country. And if he can retain the momentum, he would be a shoo-in for the next term, irrespective of any tales of the many Rajes and Lalit Modis that may come out in the meantime.

But if he chooses not to do so, he better start praying that AAP and Arvind Kejriwal do not do a good job in Delhi. Otherwise, BJP will have a really serious contender to face the next time around, with its claims to saintliness in tatters.