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Congress, corruption and political morality

Last updated on: October 15, 2012 11:38 IST
The 'disheartening' aspect of the post-Independence period was that Jawaharlal Nehru was unwilling to take action whenever a favourite politician, minister, or officer was involved in corrupt practices. The tendency continues to this day, the pattern however was set then, says Anirban Ganguly

It is heartening to see that at least in the last few days, talk of public and political morality and propriety is taking centre-stage. The Congress and its caucus which had always successfully silenced those within its ranks who sought to generate a debate on ethical issues in public life are now finding it hard to silence other whistle-blowers and watchdogs.

In the early days, when a particular caucus had not yet enmeshed the party, the Congress had a number of conscience-keepers within its fold. An opportunity then to encourage a quid pro quo-free, positive political atmosphere in the country was gradually squandered away by the Congress. It threw out a number of its stalwart foot soldiers and rapidly dwindled into a machine for increasing 'corruption and jobbery.'

In fact, it laid the foundations for the ethical degeneration of the political system in the country.

Writing as early as 1947 on 'Corruption in Congress', Jayaprakash Narayan, one of the early callers for ethical political practices, noted how people in the party who were primarily 'interested in self-advancement' did not 'worry overmuch about ideologies and questions of social policy. They will mouth any ism that may be popular, whether Gandhiism, Socialism or other, and pursue quietly their own practice.'

Once freedom was won and the jail going process ended, noted Jayaprakash, 'for many there are no moral urges left; and their attention now is centred on themselves and their personal interests. They are anxious now for jobs, positions and opportunities to seize the good things of life, and they are busy elbowing their way to these.' In a letter to the prime minister in 1953, he warned of 'eventual chaos and disintegration' if things were allowed to drift this way.

But Nehru allowed the roll on 'the slippery slope' and looked the other way at times, deliberately thwarting moves for rectifying the rapid rot. His tantrums were legendary. In the 1948 annual session of the Congress when Shankarrao Deo, then general secretary of party, moved a resolution on 'standards of public conduct to be observed by members of the party', Nehru threatened to resign as 'he considered that it amounted to a vote of censure against his government.' The resolution was revised and whittled down.

The 'disheartening' aspect of the period was that Nehru was unwilling to take action whenever a favourite politician, minister, or officer was involved in corrupt practices. The tendency continues to this day, the pattern however was set then.

One glaring example was that of Krishna Menon, the controversial high commissioner to England whose inclusion in the interim cabinet Gandhi himself is to have opposed, being made defence minister because of his proximity to Nehru. Knowing full well that details of Menon's 'shady deals' while in London was before the PAC, Nehru made no effort to reign in the maverick acolyte. When the time for cabinet induction came it was Maulana Azad's and C.D.Deshmukh's opposition to the move that is said to have further delayed the matter.

Nor was such proclivity for the high life confined to Menon alone. An interesting statistic reveals that six months after the 'traumatic' experience of the Sino-Indian conflict, between May and June 1963 -- the hottest months in the national capital -- throwing austerity to the winds, seven Indian cabinet ministers were gliding on foreign jaunts. Among them were political heavy weights, political intellectuals and Gandhians – SK Patil, (Switzerland, France, the UK, USA) Humayun Kabir (the UK, Switzerland, West Germany), Jaisukhlal Hathi (the UK, Japan), Susheela Nayar (the UK, Switzerland) and TT Krishnamachari (Australia, New Zealand, Canada)!

Nehru often flip-flopped on the issue of corruption; one sees the same habit with his political heirs today. As a chronicler-duo of his age recall, some time in 1963 Nehru declared that the Congress had lost its prestige 'because many Congressmen who, before independence, had been paupers had by now become millionaires.' A few weeks after this, he told his partymen that 'the talk of graft and corruption in India is exaggerated.' A decade before this he had declared in Parliament, 'If only we can meet corruption and black-marketing with severest measures possible, you will find that we have done rather well.'

His nostalgia towards the end for a 'glimpse of the golden days of Gandhiji's leadership, when Congressmen were inspired with a burning spirit of self-sacrifice without thought of any reward' sounded hypocritical and was of no use; in any case the slide had gone too far. He had set the pattern for his dynasts to follow.

An opposition leader in the early '60s displayed remarkable insight when he described the then Indian cabinet; it was, he told Parliament, 'like the old Hindu joint family where the daughters-in-law and the numerous sisters-in-law [owed] a tenuous type of loyalty to the family name and are held together by the terror of an awe-inspiring mother-in-law.'!

Are things different today?
Anirban Ganguly