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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 28

The Story of a Gadfly

All about the PM’s P.A. and the Trust for his Mother

Monday 30 June 2008, by Nikhil Chakravartty


[(The following is one of the best exposés of N.C. as a reporter and it was carried in the India Press Agency feature news service N.C. had founded with another outstanding Communist journalist, David Cohen (who thereafter left the Communist Party on the issue of Jewish persecution in the Soviet Union) in 1957. This report resulted in M.O. Mathai’s resignation from the post of the PM’s Special Assistant following a furore in Parliament in 1959.)]

New Delhi, January 3—A question is very often heard being asked now-a-days in the Capital: Does the Prime Minister really know all that is going on under the aegies of his Government? Honest but despairing Congressmen prefer to console themselves with the answer that obviously the Prime Minister does not.

But a question that has been coming up very rapidly in the last few months—and which promises to burst into a first-class sensation any day, whether in the Press or in Parliament—concerns the doings, or rather the misdoings, of a prominent member of his own staff. Although many outside New Delhi may not even have heard his name, Sri M.O. Mathai, the PM’s Special Assistant, has, in the last few years, buit himself up as a key man in high politics.

Sri Mathai has an extraordinary background. Before the last war, he was drawing a paltry wage being engaged as a typist by Sri C.P. Mathew, former MP. Then came a period when Mathai was employed in one of the American Government outfits functioning in this country during the war. His friendship with American circles has continued since those days, sometimes becoming far too conspicuous.

During the crucial negotiations preceding the transfer of power in 1947, Sri Mathai got into Pandit Nehru’s staff as a steno-typist. Gradually he rose to become the Special Assistant to the Prime Minister drawing a monthly salary of about Rs 1,800 a month.

About four years ago, he decided to set up a Trust in memory of his mother, called the Chechemma Memorial Trust. It started with a capital of about Rs three lakhs—by itself rather a considerable sum for Mathai to collect—and besides himself, he selected two other trustees, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur and Smt Padmaja Naidu, both of whom hardly take any interest in the matter beyond lending their good names.

Mathai himself, of course, is the managing trustee. And he has never made any bones about his hold on the Trust. Its office is at 2, Willingdon Crescent, the residence of the Rajkumari. This is the one and only family trust that a Government servant has been permitted to set up. Mathai, a Government employee, has managed to get the permission from the Home Ministry to open this Trust and collect money for it.

A surprising feature is that Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, when she was a Union Cabinet Minister, was permitted to become one of the trustees, while at about the same time, in the year 1954, two other Ministers, Sri Jagjivan Ram and Sri Satyanarain Sinha, were asked by the Prime Minister to resign from the trusteeship of the Dalmia Bhriguraj and Yogiraj Trust.

What is more amazing about it is the fact that this Trust today has assets totalling nearly Rs 24 lakhs. Among the donors are the Birlas, Shanti Prasad Jain and several Bombay businessmen. The account of the Trust is kept in the Birlas’ United Commercial Bank, but it is a closed account.

It may be by some myserious influence that over Rs 20 lakhs can be collected in memory of a completely unknown lady when one recollects that in spite of the Prime Minister’s appeal, not more than Rs nine and a half lakhs could be collected for the Kidwai Memorial Fund.

A prominent Congressman told me: “I won’t be surprised if Mundhra also has donated to this Trust.” There are grounds for such talks. Because, it is reported that the first meeting between TTK and Mundhra in the summer of 1957 had taken place at Mathai’s initiative. So far as I know, even the Vivian Bose Committee could not probe into this secret. Throughout his career as Minister, TTK is said to have kept the closest contact with Mathai.

Mathai’s association with the Birlas had, it seems, started even before the Trust was set up. Some years ago, Mathai bought an orchard in the Kulu Valley. Later he sold it to the Birlas at about one and a half lakh rupees, though, according to many, the property itself can hardly be valued at even half the amount.

Again, just six months ago, the Birlas made a gift of one of their New Delhi properties for a song to Mathai.

At Number 9, Tees January Marg, the Birlas—more precisely the Birla Cotton, Spining and Weaving Mills Ltd., Delhi (Managing Agents: Birla Bros. Pvt Ltd.)—had a house with extensive grounds covering 7,254 square yards, which comes to about one-and-a-half acres. This property is in the neighbourhood of the Birla House, where Gandhiji was assassinated.

Anybody having any knowledge of New Delhi’s lay-out will readily concede that the market value of this property would be anywhere around Rs ten lakhs. The Government itself has recently fixed the price of land in New Delhi at Rs 100 per square yard. So the land alone can fetch over Rs seven-and-a-quarter lakhs to say nothing of the building.

But how much did Mathai’s Trust have to pay for it? In a letter dated Augst 22, 1958, the Birla Cotton Spining and Weaving Mills Ltd. officially informed the present tenant: “Thus you will find that for acquiring this house the Trust had to spend approximately Rs 75,000.” No doubt, it was a gift from the Birlas!

Another interesting thing about Mathai is that he has taken out a life insurance policy which will start providing him with about Rs one thousand per month in another five or six years for the rest of his life-time.

I am told that this policy was taken out by him only a few years ago—which means that he must have been paying a very heavy premium. Persons drawing the same salary as Mathai can hardly go in for policies with such a heavy premium.

With such strong and well-laid-out contacts with Big Money, for a person to continue at a strategic post having access to the highest confidence of the nation is highly dangerous to the interests of the nation.

The Prime Minister talked of sweeping the private sector with a broom-stick if it comes in the way of the nation’s interest. Will it be too much to expect him to cleanse his surroundings?

(IPA, January 3, 1959)

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