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India’s anti-corruption activists are back on the scene

October 19, 2012

NEW DELHI: After months of behind-the scenes strategising, India’s anti-corruption campaigners have exploded back into life by exposing a series of scams that have blown the cover on the cozy relationship between politicians, bureaucrats and big business.

The activists have also overturned, with crusading disdain, the unwritten code of Indian politics: Don’t target family members of senior politicians.

First the group India Against Corruption released documents accusing Robert Vadra, the son-in-law of Sonia Gandhi, India’s most powerful politician, of amassing vast wealth in the past five years through a series of shady property deals.

That allegation directly targeted the revered Nehru-Gandhi family, the country’s oldest political dynasty, which is held in royalty-like awe by many Indians and has an iron grip over the ruling Congress party.

Then fresh allegations surfaced during the weekend accusing the wife of India’s law minister of swindling funds from her nonprofit that were meant for people with disabilities.

Both sets of allegations were made by anti-graft activist Arvind Kejriwal, who recently announced his entry into politics by saying he would form a new political party. When he appears in public, Kejriwal wears a white cap that says “I am the common man,” a dig at the Congress party’s “common man” election campaign slogan.

On Wednesday, Kejriwal released a new set of documents, this time targeting the president of India’s main opposition party, the BJP, who activists say misused his political clout in a deal in which the Maharashtra state government leased farmland to his nonprofit instead of to poor farmers.

”When politicians from all the political parties are corrupt, will they order a real probe against each other or just pretend to oppose each other?” Kejriwal asked. “We are getting fooled while all the politicians are looting the country.”

The party’s president, Nitin Gadkari, called the charges “baseless” and said he welcomed an investigation.

Kejriwal may be a political novice, but he has grabbed headlines by tapping into widespread anger against the government over rising corruption. Vadra’s vast wealth is well known to many Indians both inside and outside the media, but few have dared to discuss it publicly.

”His Royal Son-in-Lawlessness,” the news magazine Outlook proclaimed in a cover story this week about Vadra that was accompanied with an image of him astride a motorcycle.

India Today magazine said the allegations against Vadra threaten to become “a dangerous liability for Congress,” a party already buffeted by a host of corruption charges.

Kejriwal alleged that sweetheart deals — involving a state government ruled by the Congress party and a top real estate developer - helped Vadra rise from a modest exporter of brass handicrafts to a property baron, his assets shooting up from $100,000 in 2007 to $100 million in 2011. But some say Kejriwal’s biggest transgression is that he broke the nod-and-wink arrangements that exist among political parties.

A senior Congress party leader, Digvijaya Singh, told NDTV 24x7 news channel that Kejriwal had acted unethically by crossing into politicians’ private lives and trying to make political capital by attacking their families, while government ministers challenged him to take his case to court.

Kejriwal’s tirades are aimed, observers say, at stoking public anger in the run-up to a possible early national election next year.

Kejriwal has insisted his goal is bigger than that. “This is not to send one or two people to jail, but to change the whole system.

We want to expose the real character of our politicians.”

Independent lawmaker Rajeev Chandrasekhar tweeted that “most of the political parties and indeed most of the media and business class are misreading the extent of pent up anger amongst Indians.”

At first, an array of senior government ministers swooped down to defend the first-son-in-law of the Congress party. But that only prompted Kejriwal to ask: Why is the entire might of the government defending a private individual?

In a written statement to the Press Trust of India news wire, Vadra said that the allegations were “utterly false, entirely baseless and defamatory” and that Kejriwal was trying to “manufacture lies against me and malign me and my family in order to gain cheap publicity.”

The real estate developer involved called the charges a “bunch of lies.” And at a press conference on Sunday, Law and Justice Minister Salman Khursheed held up photographs and documents to prove that the money from the nonprofit was properly spent. He threatened defamation suits against the television channels that aired the story. Santosh Desai, a social commentator and columnist, said Kejriwal’s allegations have sparked “a sense of unease and uncertainty that pervades all political parties now because here is a man who is not following the old rules of Indian politics”.

”There is an off-camera set of rules that our political parties observe, which says, ‘If you pull that out, I can pull one out, too,’” Desai said. “It’s like the peace that exists between gangs. That code of silence has now been broken by Arvind Kejriwal.”

By arrangement with the Washington Post/Bloomberg News Service