Exactly 30 years ago when the ghost of Bofors was looming large over the 1989 General Election, VP Singh had emerged as a crusader against corruption. He had served credible stints as Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Union finance minister and defence minister before raising the banner of revolt against his leader, then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, on the issue of corruption, especially the kickbacks paid in the Bofors deal.
Although Singh was not a gifted orator, he was a big draw. Crowds followed him wherever he went. People reposed enormous faith in him and trusted what he said.
At the peak of his popularity, Singh resorted to a convenient half-truth. I heard him speak at a small meeting at Aminabad in Lucknow where he took out a piece of paper quite dramatically and declared, "I have the names of all Bofors pay-off recipients written on this paper. None of them will go scot-free."
When Singh took over as prime minister in 1989, it became clear that his claim of having information about the Bofors pay-off recipients was nothing more than an act of political gimmickry. Despite enjoying a high level of credibility at the initial stage his government, Singh's decline in people's esteem was also phenomenal. He is a classic example of how political careers built on trust get ruined when such leaders go astray.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi is clearly a study in contrast on the eve of the Lok Sabha election of 2019. He is building his political capital not on lies, but on outright gibberish. When on Wednesday, the Supreme Court decided on the admissibility of certain documents for a review of its order in the Rafale case, he instantly jumped to the conclusion that this was confirmation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's culpability. His conclusion, though tendentious, may well be taken as an example of extreme demagoguery in the heat of elections.
But he was not content with that. He drew a fictional surmise from the Supreme Court order by saying that the court had confirmed his allegation that Modi had stolen Rs 30,000 crore from the Indian Air Force to give it to Anil Ambani. When Singh pulled out the paper chit and claimed he had the names of all beneficiaries, he was peddling a half-truth. The truth of it being that there was a money trail in Bofors and, at the time he made the claim, the names of some, if not all, beneficiaries were known.
Forget about half-truths, the problem with Rahul's onslaught against Modi, especially in the Rafale case, is that he is not peddling complete untruths as already established by both the Supreme Court and the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India. He is evolving a new brand of propaganda that thrives in a unique domain of contriving facts where none exist.
Rahul seems to have taken all the wrong lessons from history. For example, his father's image was tainted as the linkages of the Bofors pay-off were well established. Rajiv's connection with middleman Ottavio Quattrocchi was beyond doubt. Quattrocchi's bank accounts in London had been frozen by the CBI that later released them during the UPA-1 regime. Quattrocchi took out his entire pay-off amount courtesy the Manmohan Singh government.
When Singh launched his campaign against corruption in high places in 1988, he had acquired the image of a fakir, as aptly captured in the popular slogan, "Raja nahi fakir hai, Bharat ki taqdeer hai (Not a king, he is a fakir and maker of India's destiny)". He was seen as a scion of a feudal family, who was determined to clean the Augean stables. He essentially relied on seditious politics and language to undermine the ruling elites and effectively erased his own feudal background. At the same time he rendered himself vulnerable when he resorted to half-truths on Bofors.
He was found woefully wanting when it came to taking action against Bofors pay-off recipients during his stint as the prime minister. Within a year, he lost his charm and was reduced to a caricature of his past glory.
By raking up the Rafale case in a manner that shows scant regard for truth, Rahul has been consistently hurting his own cause. Every time he contrives a formulation intended to harm Modi's image, he strengthens his adversary. It takes a lot of social understanding and skill in the making of a leader who thrives after building a credible political capital. Rahul lacks that experience.