May 31, 2020
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No Scams For Us, Please

A rare breed in a scandal-tainted world, a few honest politicians hold aloft the torch of high ideals

No Scams For Us, Please

MAHATMA Gandhi was the ascetic ideal. Since his time, multi-crore ‘scams’ have transformed post-Independence politicians from khadiclad ‘satyagrahis’ to be jewelled ‘buccaneer capitalists’, buyers and sellers of the national destiny rather than inspiring examples of national service. Unholy alliances with criminal-godmen and ostentatious lifestyles, the distribution of petrol pump patronage and the unsavoury a la carte of animal husbandry are the routine facets of the modern Indian politician. Today, the Nehru jacket and cap are caricatures of integrity, stereotypes of sleaze.

Yet in times when ‘serving the people’ is only a sad cliche and when public despair mounts with fresh examples of impolitic activities, is the elected class entirely a write-off? Or are there still among them who remain true to the spirit that moved them to join in the service of the people? Are there still some who cling to frugal lifestyles or to a commitment to the ends of politics, rather than to the simple means of professional prosperity?

Meet 52-year-old Govindacharya of the BJP who lives in his single room office-cum-sleeping quarters, sleeping on a string cot and refusing private accommodation when he is on tour. Or A.K. Antony, former Kerala chief minister, who lived in a tiny two-roomed flat while his wife went to work every day by public transport. Or Madhu Dandavate, vice-chairman of the Planning Commission and his wife Pramila, who retain the house they lived in when he was a professor at Bombay University and have never possessed a personal car. There is also 43-year-old D. Raja of the CPI, son of an agricultural labourer, who reminisces how he lived through year after year without a midday meal and today consciously accepts no other income except his party allowance. Or V.N. Gadgil, 63, of the Congress who says he feels "suffocated" by the politics of power-brokering.

The tales surrounding Antony, leader of the Opposition in Kerala, are folkloric. He’s often, albeit sarcastically, called ‘Saint Antony’. While he was chief minister, his mother sent a young boy to him with an application for a job. Antony gave the boy his return bus fare with the terse message: "Please ask my mother not to send anyone to me again." Not only has Antony never occupied the chief minister’s bungalow, his children regularly share an autorickshaw for their journey to school. Only recently has Antony moved to a spacious house because his colleagues complained that his house is too small for Opposition meetings. 

Former finance minister Manmohan Singh is the turbaned Thomas Beckett of North Block. So impatient was he with trappings of high office that he often walked from Parliament House to the annexe if he didn’t have his car. While high grandees of state seek out foreign trips, Chief Economic Adviser Shankar Acharya recalls Singh saying, "my work’s not here, it’s at home" when abroad. "He has a life similar to civil servants of the old school," Acharya says. "Lots of books in his house, which is tasteful rather than ostentatious."

"Today, politicians’ lives," says 41-year-old Nilotpal Basu of the CPM, "are divorced from public activities, they are not a part of any political movement. Unless politicians can lead a life with which the public can identify with, how can they ever change people’s lives?" Basu was a student leader in the agitations of the ’70s in West Bengal and today is a member of the Rajya Sabha. He lives in a tiny flat with his wife and daughter, still occasionally travels by public transport and has taken an active role in exposing the details of the telecom scandal. 

Basu’s philosophy is similar to Dandavate’s. As railway minister, Dandavate gave strict instructions that no one claiming to be a relative or friend could ask his staff for special favours. "Even when my brother got an opening in the railway hospital, my husband refused to let him take it up," Dandavate’s wife Pramila recalls. "We came into politics because of our involvement in the socialist movement, in fact we never wanted to be drawn into electoral politics with all its evils of big money." Indeed, it is members of ideological cadres, both on the Left as well as the Right who, more than those occupying the non-ideological centre, seem to adhere to principles of frugality and honesty. Govindacharya, the BJP’s general secretary, has been criticised in the past for having become too high-profile. After all, as member of the RSS, he is supposed to be anonymous, working silently for community welfare rather than appearing in the eye of television cameras at the drop of a state government. Govindacharya, however, insists that he remains loyal to the lifestyle of a ‘pracharak’. 

"It is the individual politician who will have to make sure that he is not purchasable," he says. "The individual will have to be fanatically austere and be careful about his or her lifestyle. Correcting systemic obstacles will only succeed if the individual acts on his own, first person, singular number, without seeking response from others."

 But must politicians live in a noble cocoon? While the rest of society moves on with upward mobility, must the politician alone hold aloft the torch of high ideals? Surely it’s unrealistic to accept the political process to be peopled by saints. Antony’s fetish for honesty often makes the operation of Indian democracy quite difficult. With Antony at the helm, the Congress has repeatedly been defeated in Kerala simply because the party has been too cash-strapped to mount proper campaigns.

"The problem," says Gadgil, "is that the MP today is expected by his constituency to be a welfare officer. He is asked to secure school admissions for some, get people gas connections. Strictly speaking, an MP is not supposed to do these things. After all, he simply represents the people in Parliament but today he is expected to be a general benefactor." So the operation of a democratic system in a still traditional society—given the relative absence of election ‘issues’—leads to the elected representative being viewed as a raja of plenty. At his house his constituents may avail of his unending hospitality and look to him for deliverance of the goods and services that the state cannot provide. If he fails to deliver, he loses. So he must keep going, a conveyor belt of supplies, especially at election time, to consolidate his image as a democratic ‘Harishchandra’.

 "In the present system," says constitutional analyst Subhash C. Kashyap, "it’s extremely difficult to be an honest politician. For most it is a career for which you need a great deal of money. Purushottam Mavlankar, son of India’s first Speaker, never spent more than the permissible amount and was often defeated," he says.

Furthermore, the occupants of the Lok Sabha today are no longer members of the ‘old elite’, the urban, affluent and often western-educated genteel sons of wealthy fathers. Today’s legislators spring from the maelstrom of ‘real’ India, are overwhelmingly rural or mofussil, lower or lower middle class, often government school-educated. Theirs is a conscious choice to live in ideologically potent poverty.

KASHYAP’S research reveals that while lawyers dominated the first and second Lok Sabhas, agriculturists and ‘social and political workers’ inhabit the 10th and 11th. Although the percentage of graduates rose from 37.1 in the first Lok Sabha to 43.6 in the 10th, Kashyap says politicians today have "multiple identities". "Often they join politics to further their business interests."

 No wonder that Gadgil, a lawyer from the London School of Economics, called to Lincoln’s Inn at London and son of a former vice-chancellor of Poona University, can afford to be more disdainful of material wealth than the newer entrants to the Delhi durbar can. "I can’t give big parties or have lavish dinners," Gadgil says. "What pleasure do people get in having 11 cars or 7-8 farmhouses?" Until last year Gadgil did not possess a car. "The only house that I have is my ancestral home in Pune—I hate the idea of converting it into flats!" Contrast this with the present MP from Pune, Suresh Kalmadi, who, according to the local grapevine, owns nearly half the city.

But one need not be a member of the old elite to be snobbish about new wealth. Says Raja, the first graduate in his village in Tamil Nadu: "I may be a politician, but I have no land, no house, no ancestral property, in fact as Marx says, I have nothing to lose!" From the sixth standard to the final completion of his SSC, Raja went without lunch, subsisting on a morning snack of rice and water. Today he continues to work among the handloom weavers and match factory workers of his district, that includes helping find burial grounds for the poor, a problem which he feels is being ignored. 

"When politics ceases to become a mission and becomes a career," says 74-year-old Kushabhau Thakre, another BJP general secretary loaned to the party by the RSS, "politicians are used by money power." Thakre’s room is bare of any appointments except giant-sized portraits of his family and political idols. On a wooden shelf sits a comb, a tube of cream and a towel, while a small suitcase with his clothes rests atop another corner table. His lunch consists of a few chapatis in a dabba and his only major expense is the few newspapers he subscribes to. "I sleep, live and work, all in one room!" he says. "And I have no political ambitions, I don’t want to be an MLA or MP. Politicians should not think of winning or losing, but of the quality of work they are doing."

Septuagenarian Surendra Mohan, veteran ideologue of the Janata Dal, describes himself as a "practising socialist". Over the years, he says, he has learnt not to trust politicians to do the right thing. Mohan says the years have tempered his idealism. "I joined politics in 1943-44. It was a different period then. The air was thick with sacrifices. I suppose it would be unrealistic today to live by those ideals. Over the years one realises the extent to which one’s dreams can be realised. " 

Mohan lives almost entirely by his writings in the media. His years of selfless service have yielded no rewards for him as he has never been appointed to any high posts, apart from being asked to draft the odd manifesto. His chambers are rather dank and dusty. On the walls hang pictures of Guru Nanak, a dogeared calendar. A crowd of supplicants sits on a rickety bed in a corner. Mohan is drafting a letter for one of them, laboriously writing by hand, with a cracked ballpoint pen.

So while the cellphone-brandishing ‘vote raja’ jets about on ‘J’ class, fully at ease with using national taxes for personal benefit and seeking the assistance of hired goons to better fulfil his patriotic purpose, the last idealists live out their commitment in tiny, dank houses with bare light-bulbs, left behind in the race for power and margin-alised in the politics of blood and gold.

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