The flight from Delhi to Chennai was about to take off. After a central minister, on the other side of the aisle, and I had just wished each other, he suddenly pointed to the passenger in the window seat next to mine and asked whether I knew him. He introduced him to me, went into reading his book. The gentleman was a Tamil Nadu cadre IAS officer, known for high integrity. As we began discussing, we could recollect having met long back. Our talk inevitably ended on how the main state actors — politicians and civil servants — had steeply declined in morals. Finally, I asked him a straight question: “Can you point at when exactly did the decline start?” He was equally straight. Political morality, he said, crashed with the “advent” of Indira Gandhi, and business, he added, became buccaneering with the “rise” of Dhirubhai Ambani. That was exactly my view too. A simple comparison of the standards of political morality before and after Indira Gandhi’s advent and the norms of business before after Ambani’s emergence would prove what he had said. Here is that comparison which turns into a truthful, even merciless, recall and introspection.
Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi’s father, lived by democratic values to guide the fledgeling Indian democracy. His other failings notwithstanding, Nehru’s political morality was unquestionable. More than Nehru, as Indira Gandhi’s immediate predecessor, Lal Bahadur Shastri is more relevant. Morally Shastri stood well above Nehru. The aristocrat Nehru never faced financial stress. Shastri, a poor man with a large family, was ever-stressed. Yet, born poor, he lived and died as one, despite being Union home minister and prime minister.
Known as the ‘homeless home minister’ of India, he had rented a house in Lucknow and lived in a government house in Delhi. Shastri occupied just two small rooms of 10’x20’ in the government accommodation, both opening into a backyard porch with a huge mango tree under which only his sons got married. When Shastri resigned as Union railway minister owning ‘moral responsibility’ for accidents, he forthwith surrendered his official car, stood in a queue in a bus stand for a bus to his home. After he had resigned under the Kamaraj Plan, Ramnath Goenka saw him waiting for a bus again and drove him home. Goenka used to recall Shastri tearfully as the decline had started after him. An illustrious Shastri had kept his personal life and political office of the prime minister he had held, clean, investing both with the highest moral authority.
Such was the high moral stature of the office that Indira Gandhi inherited from Shastri after he mysteriously died in 1966. While the ruling paradigm was political morality, Indira Gandhi soon substituted political power for political morality. She blatantly used political power and discarded political morality by engineering the defeat of the party candidate for presidency and ensuring the victory of the opposition candidate. Raw power became her weapon to subdue her own party and government and ultimately the country itself. She deliberately split the party, trivialised all senior leaders — including the illustrious K Kamaraj, who made her prime minister — as ‘Syndicate’, threw them out of the party, allied with all enemies of the Congress, won the elections with their support, but forthwith turned her back on them too. She amended the constitution to acquire more power to the ruling party (read herself). In the words of Nani Palkhivala, she “defaced” and “defiled” the Constitution. She made political success, not political morality, as the ultimate test.
It was during her time that the office of the prime minster, always beyond reproach, lost its moral stature, faced charges corruption (Maruti affair) and was even suspected of other crimes (Nagarwala scam). It was in her time that thick-skinned politics evolved, shamelessness replaced shyness in public life. Finally, she imposed Emergency in 1975 and threw all political leaders, including dissenters in her own party, into jail. Thinking that the nation was dead and her government alone was alive, she ordered elections in which the people threw out her regime.
Jayaprakash Narayan wrote to her from jail saying that she had inherited great institutions and values, but, she was leaving behind “a miserable wreck of all that”. Thanks to “wrecked” values, hard politics replaced the soft, and ‘moral responsibility’ disappeared from polity. Politicians charged with corruption and other offences began shamelessly seeking protection under rules of criminal law like criminals do — namely proof beyond reasonable doubt in courts. The nation is still in drift and decline, despite isolated attempts to restore political morality like when L K Advani, facing the Hawala prosecution, voluntarily resigned from Parliament and vowed not to contest elections till he was cleared of all charges. In competitive politics, however, his own party is unable to live up to such high morality. Yes, the politics centred on success that Indira Gandhi pursued has changed the grammar of polity and substituted political power for political morality. This paradigm shift has disconnected the India of Indira from India of Gandhi, Nehru and Shastri, yielding the India of Sonia Gandhi at present.
Now about Ambani. He became invincible by co-opting the rule-makers to make sub-rules comfortable for him comply with, thus making the breaking of rules unnecessary. Partnering the state and non-state actors and sharing with them the illicit fortunes of his business, Ambani vaulted over Tatas, Birlas, Mahindras, Bajajs and the rest. If a J R D Tata was the symbol of business ethics, Ambani became the model of business success. Media not only mocked at a Tata’s ‘failure’ to succeed like Ambani but glorified Ambani’s success sans ethics. Ambani applied Bhishma’s advice in Shanti Parva in the Mahabharata — that a great general should win a war without a battle — to his business model. So, Ambani never fought the bureaucracy or media like Indira Gandhi did. He bought them instead. He measured everyone’s worth in cash. It was only when his money proved impotent against Ramnath Goenka, that he had to face a war. He forged a letter and deflected that war away and on to Rajiv Gandhi. Ambani shifted the paradigm, transformed business into buccaneering.
Today’s scams of billions of dollars or cash-for-news have their origin in the Ambani model of partnering the main state and non-state actors and sharing the spoils with them.
Then, is everything lost? No. Still there are good men and women in politics and business, battling the corrupt atmosphere. Ordinary people still retain their simple and non-corrupt lifestyle. They all await a Shastri-like leader to emerge.
S Gurumurthy is a well-known commentator on political and economic issues.