Lamp posts. Those are what’s to blame for the state of the country today. It turns out that quite some time before Jawaharlal Nehru made his tryst with destiny speech, he made another rather rousing one where he went: “In free India, corrupt and black marketeers will be hanged from the nearest lamp post.” It’s been free India for a while now, even though the price tag may have gone up quite a bit over the last few months, but we still don’t get to see strange fruit hanging from any lamp post, let alone nearby ones.
Painting a portrait of 1950s India that’s rather eerily unchanged, Australian high commissioner to India for eight years Walter Crocker, in his book, Nehru: A Contemporary Estimate, published first in 1966, doesn’t mention the prime minister’s ‘lamp post’ promise. But he does point to why instead of Nehru’s rhetoric being taken seriously as a metaphor by our political leadership, it has been tweaked by grubby-hands, lying pretty under the noses of every successive government. They have turned the message on its head to make corruption as much a part of our daily lives as water adulterated with milk. Taking off from the observation that the making and selling of spurious drugs — in which the family of a member of Nehru’s cabinet was involved — was exposed repeatedly during Nehru’s tenure as PM, Crocker went on to write, “...but nothing was done” even though there was ample legislative and administrative authority for curbing the menace of in-your-face corruption.
In the same passage, Crocker asks whether it was “really politically unavoidable” for Nehru to take on these malevolent forces. “The prime minister who could override the politicians” and bring an “outsider” like Radhakrishnan, who bore none of the “tattooings such as a prison record, not even the Gandhi cap”, but a scholar and a philosopher as the first vice-president and the second president of India, “was he [Nehru] afraid of the politicians?”
It would be childish to hitch Crocker’s line of thinking on to the present dispensation and replace Nehru with Sonia Gandhi and Radhakrishnan with Manmohan Singh. But the brutal act of burning to death an additional district collector last week, who had tried to prevent the pilferage of kerosene and its mixing with petrol to be sold spuriously in Malegaon, Maharashtra, makes me realise how Nehru’s ‘lamp post’ speech must have inspired the wrong bunch. When a government employee doing a job that the State wants him to do — fixing crooked kerosene-petrol mixers — is bumped off by those who were supposed to be metaphorical ‘lamp post’ decorations according to a rather rousing script, clearly, something rotten is being tolerated without us being told why.
I’m not going to go into a howling position about corruption and the way the country needs to put its foot down firmly to nip it in its bloom. While following a grand ‘debate’ about the state of the Indian economy on a chain mail, I agree with Martin Wolf, the chief economic commentator at the Financial Times, when he says, “Nothing can eliminate corruption until all human beings become saints. Corruption will always be with us. So it is a matter of degree. But degrees matter.” And certainly third degree burns matter the most. Perhaps if Nehru had refrained from using the lamp post metaphor all those years ago, the ‘anti-social elements’ off the Malegaon highway wouldn’t have been inspired to roast Yashwant Sonawane in a (pure?) kerosene-doused fire.
Walking past the nearest lamp post to my office on Tolstoy Marg a few hours ago, I read the sign running along its spine: ‘Kutta bhi bina wajah ke nahin bhonkta’ (Even the dog doesn’t bark without a reason.) The almost invisible sign is supposed to help drivers refrain from blowing their horns while passing. Instead, here I am howling at the sun.