When we look at the history of democratic institutions in the country, we come across several instances of MPs and MLAs in the opposition who work hard to pin down the government. But, rarely do we find a ruling party MP firing from all guns in his effort to expose a scam and to insist on transparency in the functioning of his government. One such MP was Feroze Gandhi of the Congress, a crusader against corruption and India’s first and undoubtedly the best investigative parliamentarian, whose birth anniversary falls on September 12.
Feroze Gandhi must be remembered for many things— his participation in the freedom struggle which resulted in many jail terms; his painstaking research and commitment to probity in public life which cost Jawaharlal Nehru’s Finance Minister T T Krishnamachari his job; the nationalisation of life insurance; and for bringing in a law to insulate the media from defamation and libel suits when they reported the proceedings of Parliament. Incidentally, since the Congress never takes the name of such an impassioned campaigner against corruption, the younger generation maynot know that he was Indira Gandhi’s husband, Sonia’s father-in-law and Rahul’s grandfather.
Feroze Gandhi was inspired by Kamala Nehru to join the national movement for independence in the late 1920s. He was jailed on more than one occasion and even led an underground movement. He became a member of the Provisional Parliament in 1950 and was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1952 and in 1957. Feroze initially relished his role as a backbencher but became an instant hit with his maiden speech in the Lok Sabha in December 1955.
Everyone was compelled to sit up and take notice when he spoke on the Insurance (Amendment) Bill. Feroze held the House in thrall for close to two hours as he exposed the nefarious activities of private insurance firms and built an iron-clad case for nationalisation of the life insurance business. His arguments were so compelling that within two months the President promulgated an ordinance nationalising life insurance. Congratulating the government, Feroze said: “To hold a horse you need a rein; to hold an elephant you need a chain.” Inthe words of his biographer, Tarun Kumar Mukhopadhyaya, Feroze’s maiden speech sounded the deathknell for private life insurance business. Following nationalisation, the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) came into being.
This was a signal achievement for an MP but more was to come when in the latter half of 1957, Feroze Gandhi got a tip off about a scam in the finance ministry. He heard that the LIC had suddenly bought shares of companies owned by H D Mundhra, an industrialist close to the Congress, at inflated prices. This prompted him to intervene during question hour and seek a special debate.
The finance minister’s disingenuous response put Feroze on full alert and he sought a special debate on this issue. Initiating a discussion, he said: “A mutiny in my mind has compelled me to raise this debate. When things of such magnitude, as I shall describe to you later, occur, silence becomes a crime.” To put it briefly, the story was that Mundhra, a businessman with a dubious record, who had funded the Congress’s election campaign ran into financial problems and wanted the Nehrugovernment to bail him out. He asked the government to invest a crore of rupees in the shares of some of his companies.
Although none of the Mundhra companies were doing well, the government agreed to do this via the LIC. However, while the negotiations were on, Mundhra bought up shares of his own company in the Calcutta Stock Exchange and artificially jacked up the prices of his shares. Therefore, eventually, when the LIC went to the market, it bought them at prices much higher than what prevailed when Mundhra first approached the government for help.
This is what is called the LICMundhra Scandal. Feroze Gandhi tracked the share prices of Mundhra Companies over a fortnight to expose the government. Finance Minister T T Krishnamachari tried to defend the deal by saying LIC decided to enter the market to build up its portfolio and so, bought these shares. But Feroze Gandhi was not convinced. Why did you take a fancy only to Mundhra companies and why did you buy them at inflated prices? How can public money be squandered in this manner, he asked pointing out that the prices of theseshares slumped after LIC bought them. The government had no convincing answers.
Nehru was forced to institute a commission of inquiry which held TTK morally responsible for the questionable decision, leading to TTK’s resignation. Feroze Gandhi had several more achievements to his credit. Journalists told him that while MPs had the privilege to speak freely in parliament, people reporting the proceedings faced libel suits. Given his deep and abiding commitment to democracy and press freedom, he felt the media should have no constraints while reporting on Parliament.
He introduced the Parliamentary proceedings (Protection of Publication) Bill to protect media and in an extraordinary gesture the government adopted this bill and saw it through in two Houses. Feroze Gandhi had many qualities. His crusading nature; commitment to democracy; diligent home work; and parliamentary prowess. That is why his fellow MPs and ministers in Nehru’s government described him as “a dangerously well-informed man”. India needs to do a lot more to remember this MP-extraordinaire!