Originally Published 2016-04-30 11:33:32 Published on Apr 30, 2016
How AgustaWestland may just have scored a deadly strike on GST

It is fairly clear that the resurfacing of the AgustaWestland military helicopter scandal has rattled Congress. Investigators and courts in Italy where Finmeccanica, the parent company of AgustaWestland, is located, have said bribes were paid and identified a network of middlemen. The role of a former chief of the Indian Air Force has come under suspicion. It would stand to reason that the money trail extended to civilian officials in the defence ministry and probably politicians.

No definite names have come out, but there is a “budget list” available that allocates money for a certain “AP”. When asked by the judge, the prosecutor in an Italian court said his research indicated “AP” may be “Ahmed Patel”, the senior Congress politician and political secretary to Sonia Gandhi. This is not enough to indict or convict a person – not at all – but is nevertheless embarrassing.

There is also the fear in Congress circles of what remains unknown, what revelations could still emerge and what serious investigations could point to. Already it has come out that the defence ministry was not cooperative with Italian authorities in the UPA years. Congress spokespersons have dismissed this as “bureaucratic delay”, but a cloud remains.

It is here that the controversy diverges and takes two paths. There is the forensic matter – the need for the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to examine the money trail, sift gossip from hard evidence and so on. So far CBI has been less than successful, and it needs to show greater urgency.

Then there is the politics, which can and does exist independent of the clinical investigation. This scandal has come back to the headlines at a crucial juncture in BJP-Congress relations, when the ruling party is anyway set on a course of isolating and taking on Congress. This may seem puzzling as political adversaries in the normal course do oppose each other, and the two national parties have done little but that in the recent past. Yet, there is a difference.

From May 2014, the BJP-led government has given conflicting signals to many within its camp: taking on Congress one day, attempting to reach out and strike a deal in Parliament the next. The instincts of a political party and the compulsions of a government have sometimes been in conflict.

On the other hand, Congress has been consistent and has opposed BJP tooth-and-nail both within and outside Parliament. Where possible, it has jeopardised the government’s legislative agenda. Indeed Congress has followed an all-out war strategy – one usually limited to the fifth year, as elections approach – in the second year itself.

It has also used this opportunity to build itself a new alliance and for Rahul Gandhi to place his party on the far left of the polity. Irrespective of how state election results go on < class="aBn" tabindex="0" data-term="goog_1242227746">< class="aQJ">May 19, Congress’s leftist swerve will only strengthen.

This has given it friends in the form of the CPM, but it has also put at risk a historically pro-Congress centrist constituency. Further, it has revealed contradictions as Congress picks and chooses friends. A Mamata Banerjee is mocked as “anti-secular” because she was an election partner of BJP 10 years ago. However, a Nitish Kumar is projected as a possible prime minister even though he ran a government with BJP till as late as 2013.

There are three implications to all this. First, the government and BJP have now given up on any semblance of cooperation with Congress and have decided to go for the jugular. Given the rollcall of scandals and swindles in UPA years a determined strategy by the government, with a sharply focussed communication approach, could keep Congress very much on the backfoot.

Episodes such as AgustaWestland would make it difficult for its friends, such as the Communists and Janata Dal (United), to defend it, and essentially leave the Nehru-Gandhis and their loyalists on their own.

Second, in Parliament and particularly in the Rajya Sabha, the past 18 months have seen the BJP/NDA taking on a combined opposition, sometimes joined by NDA members such as the reckless Shiv Sena. Now a three-way segmenting is becoming clear.

There are those in the opposition space who have either been rejected by Congress or see the Congress-CPM-Nitish Kumar troika as a threat to their own ambitions. Outside Parliament, this has led to Arvind Kejriwal attacking the Congress president directly on AgustaWestland. In Parliament, it will see parties such as Trinamool Congress creating a third bloc to distinguish themselves that much more trenchantly from Congress.

Third, while the isolation of Congress on corruption issues and emergence of a distinct third group in the Rajya Sabha will give the government opportunities, it may still be difficult – in terms of legislative numbers – and too late for the Goods and Services Taxes (GST) constitutional amendment.

Introduction of GST has medium to long-term benefits but involves short-term confusion and even unpopularity. A government would be wary of introducing it in its fourth year in office, rather than in its first or second. If that is true, then Congress’s intransigence may have killed GST till 2020.

This commentary originally appeared in The Times of India.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.