AB Bardhan, a respected leader of the Communist Party of India passed away last week. A rare leader, Bardhan is different from the icons the mainline polity is familiar with today. He was simple and therefore honest. Leaders like him are only remembered for their simplicity in personal life and probity in public life. Many political leaders had lived and died, some of them most powerful and popular. Yet, only a few are remembered for probity. Whether it is Sardar Patel or Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri or Kamaraj, Ram Manohar Lohia or Deendayal Upadhyaya, Jayaprakash Narayan or Achyut Patwardhan, AK Gopalan or Acharya Kripalani, Morarji Desai or Nanaji Deshmukh, Kushabhau Thakre or Inderjit Gupta, Namboodiripad or Madhu Dandavate — to mention only a few names cutting across all political parties — they are all recalled for their probity first. Many of them stood equally for truth. I recall with gratitude that when the Indian Express was raided and I was arrested in March 1987 on false charges, it was the CPI leader Inderjit Gupta who defended me in Parliament against the powerful Ambanis and government!
But whenever such honest leaders pass away, they seem to leave an enlarging vacuum behind with steadily declining number of people like them — committed and honest. The malady, which began in politics, gradually extended to media barons and journalists, academics and professionals and even bureaucrats and judges — particularly in Delhi where from the nation is governed. And there are no courageous media owners like Ramnath Goenka or Cushroo Irani now. No Mulgaonkar or George Verghese in journalism today. Many successful journalists own properties and farms which will be businessmen’s envy. The despicable practices of some media owners, which includes laundering bribes into their coffers, will dwarf the adventures of the most seasoned buccaneers in business. Yet, these perfidious media men claim the sacred constitutional rights for which men like Goenka fought at the cost of the viability of their own papers.
How did a nation which won freedom by the sacrifices of hundreds of thousands of nationalists, who cast aside their life and even destroyed their families in nation’s cause, so quickly descend to such low, post-independence? Where did the rot begin? It all began after the advent of Indira Gandhi in the late 1960s. She changed the paradigm of politics based on ethics and probity to the paradigm of power and success. She asserted her raw power first by defeating her own party candidate whose nomination she had signed just weeks earlier, demonstrating the importance of success and irrelevance of ethics. She is remembered for the power she wielded for 16 long years.
In contrast, her predecessor Lal Bahadur Shastri, who ruled the country for a mere tenth of her tenure, is recalled for his simplicity and probity. Though both won wars with Pakistan, they symbolised two divergent paradigms. Indira was powerful. Shastri was simple. She did not respect honesty greatly. Shastri was a symbol of probity. Known as the ‘homeless home minister’ of India, Shastri lived in a rented house in Lucknow in his home state UP, and in a government accommodation in Delhi.
Shastri did not even need all of his Delhi accommodation. He occupied just two small rooms. His sons got married in simple ceremonies under the mango tree in the backyard of the two rooms. When Shastri resigned as union railway minister owning ‘moral responsibility’ for an accident, he forthwith surrendered his official car and stood in queue in bus stand to catch a bus to home.
Later, after he had resigned under the Kamaraj Plan, Ramnath Goenka saw him waiting in bus stand and picked him to home. As he repeatedly bemoaned the moral decline after Shastri, Goenka used to recall him tearfully. Shastri was born in a poor family, led a simple personal life, austere family life, ethical public life & finally died a poor man. When he died, all that Shastri had had was an old car which he had purchased on monthly instalment. Instead of celebrating such a great man, after he died, the Congress party turned so ungrateful that it humiliated him and refused state honours for his funeral and wanted his body to be taken to Allahabad for cremation. It was only after his wife, Lalita Devi, fought with the party, the great leaders relented to cremate him with national honours at the spot which is now the Vijay Ghat.
Advent of Indira shifted the core of Indian polity from celebrating honesty and ethics to worshipping success and power. For the first time in the history of free India, corruption charges were made against the Prime Minister which, of course, she couldn’t care less, turning a hitherto shy polity turned into a shameless one.
This shift in polity manifested in the character of the Lutyens of Delhi. With power naturally concentrated in the national capital Delhi, the different government offices, tribunals, and courts generate opportunities — genuine and dishonest — for the Lutyens to amass income and wealth which no other geography in India could provide. Austerity ceased to be a virtue, even became a burden in public life. Ostentation became acceptable, even venerated among the Delhi elites. With globalisation and liberalisation bringing in an avalanche of easy money into Delhi, whatever little respect virtues and the virtuous commanded declined rapidly. Wealth and power became the exclusive indices of success. Delhi changed forever, for the worse. The Lutyens of Delhi began revelling in ostentation. It is at the elite parties in Delhi, the English-speaking Lutyens meet, gossip, build and destroy others’ name and goodwill and decide the ecosystem of governance of India. The powerful elite club includes politicians, media barons and editors, bureaucrats and touts some of who masquerade as journalists.
This elite, secular, modern and powerful club, which has no connect with the Indian people, influence all governments, parties, bureaucrats and the policies they formulate. No party or government has been free from their pernicious sway. They constitute the biggest distortion of government, public life and polity. They virtually control the national media discourse which is echoed all over the country. They cannot and will not allow honest media or pubic discourse. Posing as heavyweight liberals, seculars and intellectuals, they justify dishonest politics. Political survival of non-Lutyens in Delhi is difficult unless this elite Lutyens club endorses them.
The situation appeared hopeless a couple of years back. But an unprecedented change was thrown up in the 2014 elections when the people elected Narendra Modi — a rank outsider and unknown to the Lutyens of Delhi. The Lutyens and Modi are a poles apart. The Lutyen Delhi is comfortable only in English and Modi is not. It loves elite parties which Modi keeps away from. Lutyens love to gossip and Modi wouldn’t listen even to them. For the Lutyens, he is a stranger. Modi faces their challenge which is also an opportunity. He can keep away from the Lutyens, which he does, and thus keep his government away from perfidy and corruption. But he does pay the huge cost — their intense hostility — for keeping away from them.
Not only Modi, but many of his colleagues and bureaucrats too avoid the Delhi Lutyens. In the process, the Lutyens have lost their power over the powers. The Lutyens cannot allow Modi government to succeed which will mean their defeat and irrelevance — something which they cannot accept. Modi is still the last and the best chance to break the Delhi Lutyens circuit’s strangle hold over national polity.
If he succeeds, there is scope for honest leaders like AB Bardhan, who emerge only outside Delhi Lutyens circuit, to regain respect and relevance. Otherwise they will, of course, exist, but as marginalised and endangered species in national polity and at the mercy of Lutyen mafia of Delhi.
The rest of Modi’s term is crucial not only for him and his government but also for probity in public life.
The author is a well-known commentator on economic, political and cultural affairs. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org