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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 25, June 11, 2011

Antulay and All That

Tuesday 14 June 2011, by Nikhil Chakravartty


Within two years of Indira Gandhi’s spectacular come-back to power, one of her minions has fallen. This is an episode which brings a sense of relief and also sounds a note of warning—depending on the angle from which it is viewed. Antulay’s ignominious exit from office will certainly be welcomed by all those—politicians, pressmen and officials—who have had to face the brunt of his high-handed conduct. It is also a warning signal to all those in our public life—and their number has now become a legion—the stink of whose corruption has touched the high heavens.

There are many well-meaning souls whom Antulay befriended out of his largesse and they have not hesitated to express their unhappiness that this dashing, go-getting Chief Minister has had to face the attack of those whose ranks are not filled with lily-shite angels. What these friends seem to forget is that corrupt practices once condoned spread faster, and corruption cannot be condemned selectively. Robin Hood was not corrupt, his banditry was a sort of protest against the social inequities of his times; besides Robin Hood was not a Chief Minister. It is an insult to History when Antulay is bracketed with Robin Hood. Antulay belongs to a different species as his biodata brings out. His close and active association with Bombay’s world of smugglers almost cost him earlier a minor ministerial post he was holding: that time he was exonerated—more correctly, whitewashed—through the ritual of an enquiry entrusted to a politician with an equally unsavoury record.

Antulay’s supporters—and they are not a mere handful in the political menagerie called the Congress-I—raised the plea that those who had been demanding his head on a platter, were actually gunning for Indira Gandhi and not for him. To a large measure, this is true. It is a fact that the barrage against Antulay started from the camp which is politically ranged against Indira Gandhi, and it wants to demolish, one by one, all the pillars of her political support. Obviously the battle against Antulay is part of a political war against the Indira establishment. Those who have spearheaded this attack against Antulay look upon the exposure of his corruption not as a moral struggle against human misdeeds, but as a political battle against the establishment. They are admittedly selective. They did not put the spotlight on Kanti or Saklecha, nor on Karunanidhi. But that has not made their exposure of Antulay any the less relevant.

Antulay is not just a political stray cattle. He represents a breed in our present-day politics, a very special breed which happens to command a lot of influence and has become almost an essential accessary of power. Persons tainted with corruption were not unknown in our political life in the past, some of them played an active role as political operators. All the same, the taint stuck on to them. They might have been influential in particular seasons such as in the days and weeks before an election, but they could command little authority and certainly no respect.

What has happened over the years is that the taint has been rubbed off, the corrupt can now wield authority, pull strings and they have gained easy access to the centre of power, while the good is often kept waiting in the cold or dismissed as a person of little consequence. It is this change in the attitude towards corruption that one could clearly perceive in the last five months, between the time when Antulay’s misdeeds came into the open, thanks to a well-prepared press exposure, and the day when the Bombay High Court verdict found him guilty.

It is useful to recall the first reactions to Antulay’s exposure. The Congree–I leaders insisted—and the Prime Minister agreed with them—that Antulay must not quit under pressure of Opposition clamour. By their extraordinary logic, this was made into a “prestige” issue. One wonders if hindsight will tell them that corrupt practice cannot be protected or glossed over by the strength of a parliamentary majority. Rather their party and its leadership would have strengthened itself in the eyes of the electorate that gave it the parliamentary majority had Antulay at that time been made to resign. In terms political realism—not to speak of integrity in public life—the position of the Congress-I has been under-mined by the devious manner in which it has conducted itself in the Antulay affair.

This episode has brought out the weakness of the political set-up which the Prime Minister has chosen to depend upon. There are no aides or advisers, but flunkeys and time-servers. To expect them to think with a sense of responsi-bility and to tender honest advice without fear or favour, is to ask for the impossible. A pack of sycophants is not the same thing as a High Command: it is only through the force of habit that those of her party loyalists who are near Indira Gandhi are still called members of a High Command. But actually there is a single commander surrounding herself by a bunch of yesmen.

On this Antulay affair itself, many an observer has had the experience of encountering senior Congress-I leaders who claim to be close to the Prime Minister, confessing in private that Antulay should have been asked to resign right at the beginning, but when they are confronted with the question, why they themselves were not taking up the matter with their Party President, they almost invariably shrugged it off, some even implying they only carried out her biddings and were not there to offer her advice.

And what is the final upshot of it all? It is only after four months of amazing procrastination —a period which must have made it clear at least to Indira Gandhi how the public, outside the circle of her retainers, has looked at the Antulay case—that the Bombay High Court verdict about the irregularities in the grant of cement permit has been respected. In other words, the Congress-I leadership has made it clear that it could be made to respond only to a Court verdict but not the verdict already delivered at the more important court of public opinion. Normally a live-wire political leadership is expected to be responsive to public opinion even if it is beset with reservations about a law-court suit.

The Bombay High Court verdict has only decided on the irregularities committed by Antulay on a single issue, namely, the grant of cement permit in return for a consideration. In the eyes of the public, equally serious, if not more, is his accumulation of huge amounts going upto fifty crores of rupees—if not more—in the form of so-called trusts, with one of which he at one time could venture to associate the name of his Party President herself. Perhaps on this score, the law would help Antulay, but in the eyes of the public, there is bound to be justified suspicion that these trusts have been set up to provide a mechanism for making black money white. Antulay’s mere removal from the post of Chief Minister would not mean the termination of his hold on these trusts; rather he might retire as a millionaire—if not surfacing again as a political operator—enjoying a sort of fabulous pension by making use of his tenure as Chief Minister. This reflects more or less the same outlook as one has noticed in the case of the Bearer Bond scheme—that is, the black-money operator enjoys, in our present-day socio-political set-up, a degree of legal protection unheard of before.

Antulay’s genius is of course undeniable. As an extremely intelligent operator, he managed to utilise the State exchequer for the purpose of keeping the bulk of his party legislators happy, so much so that they stood as a solid block wanting him to continue as Chief Minister even after the High Court verdict. He may claim before his party chief—as he has done in his own circle—that he alone could beard the powerful Maratha lobby in its own den.

No doubt Antulay can also claim that he helped Indira Gandhi in the wintry days of the Janata to run her apparatus and find resources for it. With a touch of blackmail, he could, as he presumably did, get it conveyed to her the adverse consequences of removing the only Muslim Chief Minister in the Congress-I at a time when this sizeable minority is disturbed by occasional spurt of communal violence.

There could be no question of ignoring Antulay’s virtuousity. Obviously this is the plus point which he has so long utilised in placating the so-called High Command. His profuse profession of loyalty to the leader of his party must have had its impact, for the services rendered by him for her to run the ramshackle outfit of her party, had to be recognised. Hence Venkataraman’s amazing feat in the monsoon session of Parliament dishonestly defending a man whose case was indefensible, and Venkataraman is no fool that he could not count the skeletons in Antulay’s cupboard, exhibited in the open. What a sea-change from the days when TTK resigned over just an indiscretion in the granting of LIC loan to Haridas Mundhra, though everybody in Parliament knew that TTK personally was not involved in the Mundhra scandal.

Antulay cannot be accused being a solitary politician with a record of handling and hoarding Big Money. In fact, he can claim to have long enjoyed the Prime Minister’s confidence—even to the point of acting as the sounding board for her ideas of having a presidential system of government in this country. His only mistake perhaps has been that he tried brazen-facedly to institutionalise corruption. There are others holding important positions as Ministers and Chief Ministers whose performance in the field of corruption is no less formidable. Some of these have been functioning with impunity in the immediate proximity of the Prime Minister, enjoying a degree of political protection which Antulay could not manage to secure by virtue of his having to operate in far-away Maharashtra. It would perhaps be too much to expect that a single judgement of the Bombay High Court will touch off a self-administered purge in the entire establishment. However, the Antulay exposure should have a sobering influence on our political life so that the hazards of corruption may be realised by those who indulge in it.

Our people are poised for great achievements, and the nation is proud of such achievements. This week as we acclaim with pride the journey of our intrepid scientists through the forbidding continent of Antarctica, we are confronted at the same time with this sordid spectacle of those entrusted with the wielding of power in our country harbouring the brood of Antulays in their midst.

A great nation beckoned by destiny cannot afford to wallow in such dirt of lowly corruption.

(Mainstream, January 16, 1982)

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