New Delhi has just entered its autumn social season, a few weeks of numerous soirées where stalwarts from the ruling Congress, the opposition Bharatiya Janata party and powerful media outlets trade gossip about who’s doing what to whom – tittle-tattle that rarely goes beyond India’s power elite.
For all their vitriolic rhetoric in parliament and on television, the Congress and the BJP have long had a tacit understanding to keep silent about each other’s “private” moneymaking activities and the “businesses” run by their family members. Like Washington and Moscow during the cold war, party leaders have enough ammunition for mutually assured destruction if either should launch charges of corruption against the other.
But these codes of conduct are being broken by an anti-corruption crusader with political ambitions of his own. In a season of middle-class anger against pervasive abuse of power, a former tax inspector turned right-to-information activist is hurling allegations of wrongdoing against the biggest names of India’s political establishment.
Arvind Kejriwal served notice this month that no one was safe from his scrutiny when he attacked Robert Vadra, of Sonia Gandhi, the Congress party’s Italian-born leader. Mr Kejriwal accused Mr Vadra of receiving loans and property at discounts from DLF as a quid pro quo for ensuring India’s largest property developer received favourable treatment from authorities in Haryana, the Congress-ruled state outside New Delhi.
Ever since the 1991 assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi – seven years after his mother, Indira, was killed by her bodyguards – Indian media has maintained respectful deference towards the Gandhi dynasty. This was displayed in 2011 when Mrs Gandhi spent weeks in the US for treatment of a mysterious illness.
But Indian TV channels lapped up the allegations against Mr Vadra, beaming live broadcasts of the denunciations. The fact that someone would dare to speak about the private affairs of members of India’s most prominent political dynasty was treated as a major news event, before the claims were analysed.
Mr Vadra, a mustachioed body-builder, ended up on the cover of India’s news magazines that examined his improving financial fortunes since his 1997 marriage to Mrs Gandhi’s daughter, Priyanka.
Mr Vadra, DLF and the Haryana government have all denied any impropriety in their dealings. But a taboo in reporting on the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has been broken.
Allegations are still flying. Mr Kejriwal amplified a media investigation into alleged wrongdoing by a trust for the handicapped run by the Congress’ urbane external affairs minister, Salman Kurshid, and his wife. He has also accused Nitin Gadkari, president of the BJP, of improperly acquiring agricultural land for his business in Maharashtra.
Each of Mr Kejriwal’s targets in these matters, which have been widely reported in the Indian media, has denied any malfeasance. Congress leaders have accused the anti-corruption crusader – who plans formally to launch his own political party next month – of running a publicity-seeking witch hunt.
But like an audience at a thrilling horror movie, New Delhi’s chattering classes are all aquiver over what powerful figure will be the target of Mr Kejriwal’s next exposé.
Meanwhile, the middle classes are enjoying the spectacle: watching their once-untouchable leaders squirm. In the absence of convincing initiatives to root out corruption, influence peddling and abuse of power, urban India is embracing a 21st-century form of mob justice, with a self-righteous activist and a ratings-hungry media acting as prosecutor, judge and executioner.
Nowhere for Rahul
The Congress’s cabinet reshuffle on Sunday generated less excitement than the Arvind Kejriwal show. The biggest suspense was over whether Rahul Gandhi, the reluctant heir apparent of the ruling party, would finally take a ministry.
The answer, we now know, is no. Mr Gandhi again rebuffed appeals from Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, to take a cabinet position, opting instead to follow the path of his mother, Sonia, and play the role of party kingpin from the backroom.
It seems the first family of Indian politics feels more comfortable with the leadership style of a communist-ruled state, rather than that typical of a well-functioning democracy.