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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 1, December 25, 2010 (Annual 2010)

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Friday 31 December 2010, by Nikhil Chakravartty


A great country caught in the web of sordid politics—that is how one is tempted to describe the state of the nation today.

In contrast to the political set-up in India’s neighbourhood—right and left, north and south—it can of course be claimed that in our country there is a modicum of stability with democratic rights assured to and asserted by a large section of the populace. And yet there is disillusion, frustration and at places cynicism writ large all over this vast country. After nearly three decades-and-a-half of freedom, the majority of the people are in a state of impoverishment while millions upon millions are confronted with the spectre of unemploy-ment. Progress by the conventional yardstick has certainly been registered in many spheres of the nation’s activities—from economy to foreign affairs, from culture to national security: but the benefits of development are percolating too slowly down to the millions at the base. Side by side, the affluent have enriched themselves further, while their intrusion into the body-politic has vitiated our national life. Out of this unholy wedlock between politics and Big Money is born magnum-size corruption in India’s public life.

The Antulay affair has revealed more than the Members of Parliament in their high-pitch excitement could comprehend. Whether Venkata-raman told the truth is of little consequence; for, the Finance Minister of India can hardly afford always to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And it is equally irrelevant whether the Prime Minister consented at any stage to lend her name to a dirty racket. The very fact that her minions have been insisting that their leader was not connected with the christening of one of Antulay’s many trusts—covering up crores of rupees—indicates at least their suspicion that everything in it is not above board: otherwise, why should the Prime Minister be at pains to demonstrate her dissociating from a supposedly well-meant project set up by one of her loyal lieutenants, to which initially she had given her consent to be associated?

The point to note is that Indira Gandhi’s flock is dead-set on preserving the leader’s personal charisma, because that is the only capital on which their entire political existence depends. Not the strength of any party organisation on any policy issue can sustain them: they cannot afford any stigma to touch the leader’s personality that may erode her popularity, and thereby bring all of them down once again.

Nobody in the wide world of New Delhi however would believe that Antulay’s racketee-rings were without the knowledge of the Prime Minister who is also his party leader. It is possible that Indira Gandhi felt a little uneasy at Antulay’s twisting-the-tail tactics to extort funds, reports of which were reaching her with surprising regularity; otherwise, what Antulay has done is in the style of many in the Congress—both high and low: only these others have not moved with as much nonchalance and bragga-docio in systematic extortions as Antulay (with his past links with the smuggling community) has done, exploiting to the maximum the authority and influence he could command as the Chief Minister.

At the same time, the reason why Indira Gandhi dragged her feet in getting rid of Antulay deserves notice. The very obvious one proffered by her henchmen is that she would never let the impression gain ground that she has knuckled under the Opposition clamour for Antulay’s head. More important perhaps is her awareness that Antulay, if not handled with care and consideration, may spill the beans, and its chain-reaction may turn out to be shattering.

With all the popularity that she commands, Indira Gandhi knows more than anybody else, the number of skeletons in her establishment’s cupboard. If the Congress old guard had to carry the liability of having an Atulya Ghosh or an S.K. Patil, the recklessness of Lalitnarayan Mishra or the calculating moves of Umashankar Dixit—to say nothing of other venal categories like Rajni Patels and Yashpal Kapoors—might have initially fetched short-run political dividends for Indira Gandhi in her critical combat with the Syndicate bosses; but easy and cynical access to Big Money through the machinery of the power-structure—indulged in as a justification for retaining that power—became an addiction which, to a large measure, eroded her undoubted charisma of 1971-72 in a span of barely three years.

Old habits refuse to die. Even the forced political hibernation of 1977-79 did not bring about any cleansing of Big Money corrosion in the Indira camp. During the Janata interregnum, Big Money naturally flocked to the new establishment, but not all the moneybags abandoned their old moorings, and by the time Indira Gandhi returned to power, the familiar faces again reappeared in the corridors of power. The landslide electoral victory led to complacency and cocksureness in the Indira camp: and in this conviviality surfaced characters like Gundu Rao and Antulay.

With all the excitement over the incomparable Antulay, one need not run away with the impression that his adversaries are innocent angels. Stinking corruption wallowed in by some of the Janata big-wigs and their progeny can hardly be wished away: the exploits of Kanti Desai and Biju Patnaik, Suresh Ram and Brijlal Verma are not yet forgotten. And if one makes a quiet investigation into the crores pocketed by politicians, Ministers and their operators, in the oil deals (particularly spot buying) and defence purchases in the last ten years, it is bound to be a very impressive, if not frightening, list. Add to this, the record of many of the celebrities in the State Ministries, with their prize acquisitions. Even the mechanism of Trusts is not the monopoly of Antulay and his ilk. Charan Singh’s famous Kisan Trust would need a lot of explaining away. Incidentally, Antulay’s reply to charges in the Maharashtra Assembly debate on his Trusts, has revealed the virtuosity of his opponents when in office, including Sharad Pawar. In Karnataka, Devaraj Urs would long be known for both competence and corruption.

Out of this mystery world of Big Money come picturesque figures like the Hindujas who could move about with equal felicity in the anteroom of the former Shah of Iran and in the presence of Indira Gandhi, while doling out lollypops to Morarji’s son or Jagjivan Ram’s. Curiously enough, the same Hindujas could be found active behind the scenes in the Antulay affair. These financial operators prosper in all seasons, no matter whether the politicians they back stand or fall. Such Santa Clauses seem to be imperishable.

But the radioactive fall-out of corruption today is no longer confined to the Congress and the Janata and their many ramifications. If the Jana Sangh can hardly claim to have a record without blemish (let us not forget Saklecha among others), the Left can no longer claim to be incorruptible. Achutha Menon’s forthright admission of corruption prevailing under the aegis of Kerala’s Left and Democratic Front Ministry (published elsewhere in this issue) is a warning coming from a political leader whose probity is unquestioned. The spirit scandal will not easily evaporate. In West Bengal, the complacent calculation that the electorate at the next poll would prefer the Left Front to the ragamuffins rallying under the banner of the Congress-I, need not be regarded as a testimonial for the State Government’s record on his score. If the spotlight is turned on the corruption in the giant-size outfit of Calcutta’s Metropolitan Development Authority, some of the luminaries connected with the present Left establishment might find it discomforting. The record of some of the West Bengal Ministers is certianly not above board, and the Chief Minister knows at least this much about his colleagues. Corrupt practices to raise funds for the party may look less reprehensible than personal gains, but it remains corruption all the same.

It may certainly be argued that with all the corruption, Jyoti Basu’s government works better than, say, the Congress-I Ministry in Bihar or Uttar Pradesh. For that matter, Indira Gandhi’s government too works in contrast to the tamasha of a government over which Morarji Desai presided. She commands a comfortable majority in Parliament; her economic policy does not face a collapse; her foreign policy safeguards national interests, and her government is vigilant about national security. All this is true but Antulay’s Trusts are also true, and his loyality is unques-tioned—so much so that he wants the parlia-mentary system to be scrapped to provide his leader with the relief and authority of the presidential system.

In the short view, the question of corruption may appear to our politicians—whether of the Right, Left or Centre—as of mere marginal relevance in their game of parliamentary politics. What they seem to miss is that this pollution is undermining their standing in the eyes of the masses. The popularity of an Indira Gandhi or a Jyoti Basu lasts as long as the masses retain the image they have about her or him: and this image, whatever it may be, gets eroded when exposed to the evil winds of corruption.

It is an accepted truism that no nation can have stability and strength so long as the majority of its people are ground down by back-breaking poverty. And poverty and economic disparity cannot be reduced, not to speak of being liquidated, so long as our political life is vitiated by large-scale corruption. No leadership can lead a nation towards freedom or economic salvation so long as it is incapable of warding off the temptation of what is literally, filthy lucre. Sacrifice and dedication cannot coexist with corruption; faction fights and palace intrigues can. Corruption in public life is therefore not a question of morals but of wise and responsible politics.

It is time that this new politics of dedication to the interests of the masses emerged in our country since no existing party can, by its record, claim to possess the imprimatur of an incorruptible leadership. Without this purgatory in our political life there can be no basic socio-economic change in this country, and without basic socio-economic change, this country can be neither strong nor prosperous.

Towards the evolution of such a new politics, Mainstream dedicates itself without fear or favour, as it steps into the twentieth year of its career.

(Mainstream Annual, 1981)

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