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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 51, December 11, 2010

Upholding Objectivity beyond the Culture of Sycophancy

Sunday 12 December 2010, by Nikhil Chakravartty


We as a nation have taken pride in the fact that in political life, a liberal and tolerant approach has become the hall-mark of Indian democracy. While differences have always cropped up in our national movement involving the giants among its leadership, there was by and large adherence to the principle of live and let live.

In our young days, we in Bengal looked upto Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das as our leader, and yet when he and Motilal Nehru differed from Gandhiji and formed the Swaraj Party and decided to enter the truncated legislature under Montford Reforms initiated by the British Government, there was excitement, heated arguments but never any exchange of abuse and ugly demonstrations. I remember as a schoolboy attending the Calcutta session of the Congress, the first in my career, where there where sharp differences between the old guards setting as the Congress demand the attainment of the Dominion Status, while the younger leadership represented by Subhas Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru refused to compromise on the demand for compete independence. There was lot of excitement and flaming speeches, but beyond that one could perceive a sense of mutual tolerance. In fact, that was the secret of Gandhiji’s capacity to hold different points of view together. Next year at Lahore, the entire leadership veered round to the demand for independence. There was no attack, no back-biting. Not that there were never any parting of ways. Before our own eyes, we witnessed how the Congress High Command forced Subhas Bose to step down in 1939 and a bitter trail was left behind. There were differences on major issues of principle in the fight against foreign rule but never a denunciation, never abusive words.

Secondly, as part of that democratic culture, our great national leaders were prepared to tolerate criticisms and adverse comments from critics and fellow-fighters for freedom. There was never an attempt to smother criticism, no question of treating a leader as a demi-god about whom nothing must be tolerated by way of criticism. This tradition of mutual tolerance and fair criticism stood the nation in good stead after independence. The political culture in our Parliament in the first two decades after independence bears witness to this tradition. In fact, this legacy from the freedom struggle helped to build up the political conventions in our Parliament. The Opposition was weak in numbers but treated with respect and its criticisms quite often could get adequate response from the Treasury Benches. It was a regular practice on the part of Jawaharlal Nehru as the Leader of the House to come and listen carefully to the presentation by the leaders from Opposition parties, and in his reply to any debate, he would make it a point to touch on practically every issue raised by the Opposition benches.

THIS tradition suffered a setback when the Congress as the pre-eminent political party in the country was split in 1969. Without going into the origin and causes of that split—which could be traced to both policy differences and personal allergies—one has to concede that the old democratic culture suffered grievously as a result. Tolerance and respect for each other’s criticism were given the go-by. Sometimes the Congress leaders, some of them veterans on their own standing, stooped low to fight like kilekenny cats. As loyalty to one’s party was no longer held as a virtue in politics, defection was practically legitimised.

No doubt Indira Gandhi was at that time fighting with her back to the wall against the old guard. At the same time one cannot keep reflecting today that out of this split in the Congress, there developed a strange cult of personality. The leader, right or wrong, became the deliverer, and was placed on a pedestal. This was reflected in the new practice of nominations from the top, that is, from the leader, to all posts within the party. A party, which for decades used to take pride on its democratic character, transformed itself into a congregation round a leader. The factors that led to such a transformation of the Congress require in-depth study which will surely be of value for Indian political functioning. Because the Congress being the dominant political entity set the fashion, one finds that most of the political formations which have broken away from the Congress, more or less follow the same pattern. Strangely enough, the two parties at opposite poles—the BJP and the Communists, both regarded as anti-democratic—maintain the practice of inner-party elections which other parties have practically abandoned. In the twentyfive years since the great split in 1969, the Congress, the leading party in the country, has never held inner-party elections as laid down by its own party constitution.

An off-shoot of this personality cult has been that the party itself has come to be known by the name of the leader. Even when the Congress led by Indira Gandhi got official imprimatur from the Election Commission as the only party to bear that name, it preferred to stick the name of the leader to the name of the party.

Even acknowledging the great contribution that Nehru and his daughter have made to the building of modern India, one wonders whether it is wholesome for a democratic polity for the Congress to have transformed itself as a party which is based on the cult of personality. Without in the least being irreverent to any of his successors in office, it is legitimate to ask ourselves whether Jawaharlal Nehru would ever have permitted the Congress party to be named after himself. He certainly had a will to greatness, but he would never have dreamt of putting his own signature on the brand name for the party which he led.

This came out blatantly at the time of the crisis that Indira Gandhi faced in June 1975 when she was assailed by a powerful mass movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan. At that point of crisis, what was the rallying call for the Congress party? This was provided by one of her cronies, otherwise a civilised person, who held the post of the Congress President at her pleasure—“Indira is India, India is Indira”. And it was with this slogan that the Emergency was clamped down, when authoritarian rule became the order of the day. This, in its turn, brought the debacle of 1977 and she and her party had to fight a difficult battle. When she came back to power in 1980, the same order continued; rather it was more personified, with her son Sanjay as the political grandmaster of the party.

When Sanjay met his tragic end in an aircrash, the crucial moment came for Indira Gandhi—would she choose as her potential successor a party leader or her other son? There were quite a few veterans within her party, whom she could have relied upon and groomed for taking over the reins of the party and government after her. But she chose her inexperienced son who himself—a very decent person—was most reluctant to enter the hurly-burly of politics. The rest of the story needs no recounting.

The point to note is not that Rajiv Gandhi turned out to be a decent person, with a lot of dynamism and earnestness, but that the leader could not think of a successor outside her own family. Hence, the cult left behind for the party has been to look upto one who was the progeny of the leader. It is out of this mentality that one finds elderly Congressmen talking of some other scion from Rajiv’s family emerging as the chosen leader of the party in the future.

IT is precisely in this background that one has to understand the mystifying spectacle of the campaign by a section of Congressmen against the former President’s book of reminiscences, My Presidential Years. It was amazing that well-educated persons, some of them holding important positions in government or political life, should have attacked Venkataraman’s book, on the charge that he had maligned Rajiv Gandhi. One wonders if they had cared to read the book at all. The 600 pages of the book nowhere maligns Rajiv Gandhi. Rather one finds that Venkataraman has poured praises on Rajiv and his family throughout—more than he has done to Indira in this book.

There are beautiful touches throughout about his interaction with Rajiv. Here is one which deserves to be recapitulated:

At 11 am on Wednesday, November 29 (1989) Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi made a formal call and handed over the letter of resignation of the Council of Ministers. He was bright, warm and cheerful and if he had any pain or anguish over the defeat, his face and demeanour did not show any trace of it. Usually at our meetings, Rajiv Gandhi helped himself liberally to sweets, all the time protesting that it added to his girth and this day was no exception. He talked determinedly of rebuilding the party and recapturing power much before the usual five-year term. He said that the defeat was a necessary shock treatment to his complacent self-seeking party bosses.

There were many occasions when as a senior leader, Ventataraman offered advice in his personal capacity to which Rajiv responded without the least misunderstanding. This happened even when he had ceased to be the Prime Minister.

Throughout the book, one could find that Venkataraman wrote out of the regular diaries he must have kept throughout his years at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, and therefore the book is an invaluable piece of record. There are points on which he has been extremely circumspect. He tells the story of the crisis created by Zail Singh’s coup bid, but does not tell us how and by whom it was defused. Surely he knows the whole story. On the Sri Lanka adventurism that Rajiv Gandhi had been drawn into, Venkataraman has practically kept his mouth shut. There are hints here and there but no appraisal. Placed as he was at a vantage point, one would expect him to leave for posterity his own assessment of our Sri Lanka policy in the five years of India’s direct involvement in the affairs of the island neighbour. There are, of course, many issues of controversy on the Cauvery water dispute, the Article 356 on which diverse points of view are legimitate. At the same time, it has been useful to know how the President himself looked at them and tackled them.

Ventataraman’s book touches only in passing has views on the economic reforms. He has throughout praised Dr Manmohan Singh’s integrity; significantly the first place where he is mentioned is for his “excellent work in the South Commission”. In the book, there are two interesting pieces of advice he had given to the Finance Minister. The first one was on devaluation of the rupee:
The IMF was insisting on devaluation of the rupee as a condition for grant of accommodation. The Prime Minister, the Finance Minister and the Governor of Reserve Bank of India met me several times. I asserted that official devaluation of the rupee would create a storm of protest and threaten the government. Indeed, the Reserve Bank which fixes the rate of exchange with reference to a basket of currencies could gradually readjust the exchange rate to suit the needs.

Obviously this was not heeded, though it was Venkataraman who as the Finance Minister had arranged the biggest IMF loan under Indira Gandhi without devaluing the rupee.

When the Finance Minister wanted to drastically cut down subsidies on fertiliser, food and petroleum, Venkataraman told him that “this would result in a hue and cry in and outside Parliament and that he should be sensitive to public opinion in this regard”. By now, the Finance Minister must have become wiser. Incidentally, Venkataraman dates back the deterioration of the economy since 1986—that is, from the mid-point of Rajiv Gandhi’s Prime Ministership, and not from 1989 with the advent of V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar’s Prime Ministership as the Finance Minister tries to remind all the time.

Venkataraman has been no Leftist critic of our economic policy. His concern comes from his sense of national pride. An incident reported by him in his book brings this out. The Ambassador-designate of Swaziland had come to present his credentials, and he narrated how the IMF stipulated stringent conditionalities on his country which they did not accept.

I was struck by his statement. Here was one of the least developed countries which declined to bow to IMF pressure while we, the developed among the developed countries, had accepted onerous conditionalities which I had denounced earlier in Fund-Bank meetings.

There are such observations, replete all over the book, which serious and experienced leaders of the Congress should ponder over. Such concerns can hardly be smothered by denouncing the man for having maligned the leader which he had not. There are many gems strewn throughout this fat volume. Here is one which should set every honest Congress follower thinking:

J.R.D. Tata made a courtesy call on me. We had known each other from the days when I was in the Planning Commission and had developed a mutual regard for each other. Commenting on Rajiv’s statement on Bofors in Parliament Tata said that though it was quite possible that neither Rajiv nor members of his family had received any consideration in the gun and other defence deals, it would be difficult to deny the receipt of commissions by the Congress Party. He felt that since 1980 industrialists had not been approached for political contributions and that the general feeling among them was that the party was financed by commissions on deals.

This is the book which the Congressmen should read with care containing as it does the sage observations from one of their leaders and not denounce it and him in mindless fury.

(Mainstream, September 2, 1994)

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