CHENNAI: It is hard to remember another occasion in the political history of the country when a Minister was summarily sacked for corruption. Of course, ministers have been dropped from cabinets before, but usually such actions are forced by media exposure, by police investigations, and by either observations or decisions taken by courts. The remarkable thing about the abrupt firing of Vijay Singla, Punjab’s Minister for Health, occurred without any of this.
It happened after Singla’s Officer on Special Duty was caught on audio tape demanding a commission for a project involving the establishment of mohalla clinics, a demand that was made with the full knowledge, if not at the express behest of the minister. A whistleblower sent the tape to Chief Minister Bhagwat Mann’s office the same day it was taped. And Singla got the marching orders on the very next day.
It is much too early to judge the fledgling AAP government in Punjab on the corruption front on the basis of this one decision. But there is no denying that it was a politically stunning move – faultless in terms of political signalling. While one swallow does not a summer make, the chorus of appreciation for this swift and unsparing action against a powerful minister has raised the inevitable question. Could the AAP set a new standard in Indian politics on the corruption front?
It is not an easy question to answer. One the one hand, its leader Arvind Kejriwal is acutely aware that the growth of the party – which has expanded beyond Delhi to win Punjab, and established a presence in some other northern States – depends critically on projecting itself as a party with the difference. The AAP after all grew out of the anti-corruption movement headed by those such as Anna Hazare. Kejriwal knows the importance of ensuring it doesn’t grow out of this.
The big problem, one that has confounded even those with the best intentions, is how political parties can grow in the absence of large infusion of funds. It is not cheap to fight elections and it is not easy to manage party functionaries as parties grow in size. Going forward, this is one of the major dilemmas that Kejriwal has to tackle in the years ahead. Having delivered a smashing victory in Punjab and due to make some headway in the coming State elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, the AAP realises that the next couple of years will determine whether it can do the unthinkable – become another non-regional (or somewhat pan-national) alternative to the BJP.
This may seem like a tall order now. But with the Congress gripped in self-inflicted decline – reinforced once again by the recent departure of former Union Minister Kapil Sibal – the prospects of AAP pulling off such a play cannot be ruled out. One of the reasons for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s electoral success has been the ability (deservedly or otherwise) to persuade the electorate that he is not corrupt – in fact, very little thrown at his government, including the Rafale deal, has stuck. The Indian electorate has shown time and again that corruption (or perceived corruption) is a major issue. The defeat of Rajiv Gandhi in 1989, the loss of Jayalalithaa in 1996, and the victory of Modi in 2014 were all influenced by issues and perceptions relating to corruption. Kejriwal is fully aware of this. Corruption is both a challenge and an opportunity. He needs to tackle the first while preserving the second.