The suit that Narendra Modi wore on January 25 is fast becoming the most minutely examined piece of clothing in modern Indian history. In television studios and living rooms, people ask: Should the Prime Minister have accepted a suit with his name on it as a gift from an admirer? Should he have worn it at an official reception? And should he then have had it auctioned? Interestingly, as Business Standard reported, Mr Modi’s predecessor also accepted and kept gifts (albeit less flamboyant ones). An RTI enquiry revealed that, after he demitted office, Dr Manmohan Singh took home as many as 101 gifts that he received while he was Prime Minister. These included a music system, a wrist-watch, and some tea sets.
The acceptance of gifts by Indian politicians has a long history. Working in the archives recently, I found a file on gifts (in both cash and kind) received in the 1940s by the prominent Andhra Congressman T Prakasam. These came from various individuals, and from Bar Associations and Merchants’ Chambers of towns such as Nellore, Vishakapatnam, and Rajahmundry. Prakasam was a great hero in the Telugu-speaking districts of the Madras Presidency, known to his admirers as ‘Andhra Kesari’.
Prakasam’s acceptance of gifts attracted the attention of his party leader, Vallabhbhai Patel. In February 1946, Patel wrote to Prakasam, asking whether the money he had received had been properly credited to the party’s account. When Prakasam answered that the gifts were a mark of appreciation for his ‘struggles’, Patel replied that it was wrong ‘for a Congressman to take such public purses for private use’.
Patel passed on the correspondence to Mahatma Gandhi, who wrote to Prakasam, saying that he had set ‘an extremely bad example’. He continued: ‘If it is multiplied, purity of public life will come to an end. I can understand a public fund for the maintenance of public servants such, for instance, as was raised … for lawyers who had given up practice in the heyday of non-cooperation. … But I have never heard of a single instance in which what you say has been done or can be defended.’ Gandhi told Prakasam that he had ‘been instrumental, however unwittingly in corrupting public life’.
Prakasam now issued a statement defending his actions. Since a full-time politician could not take up a paid job, he argued, the only option was for him to ‘depend upon public support; any purse presented … is in its essence only organized public charity or rather grateful public repayment for services rendered’. Then he added: ‘Whatever may remain after satisfying my simple needs, out of the monies showered upon me, …though expressly for my personal, private and exclusive use will devolve in proper time upon the nation and will be entrusted to the most trustworthy hands, for the most enduring and beneficent purposes’ (emphasis in original).
Prakasam ended his public defence with a somewhat self-regarding declaration of patriotic virtue. ‘My affinity with the nation,’ he wrote, ‘is the source of the onrush of health and energy, bodily and mental, which course through my blood. That explains the enthusiastic receptions accorded me throughout Andhra…. The boundless love of the thousands of people that throng to hear me, in towns and villages and the unfailing vigour, that sustains me in all these incessant, prolonged tours at my age, prove, if proof were at all necessary, the increasing mutual identification between the nation and myself ’.
Prakasam’s declaration evaded the key questions raised by Gandhi and Patel: namely, the blurring of the boundaries between the individual and the party, and a proper accounting of the gifts he had received. So Gandhi wrote, asking him to ‘make a clean breast of all your affairs and produce an accurate account of all your doings’. In the second week of April 1946 Prakasam met both Gandhi and Patel; later, in a show of repentance, he deposited some of the money he had received with the party. Gandhi was not entirely satisfied, writing that if he was really sorry he should eschew public office altogether. For, ‘there is ample field open to everyone for silent service which is often much greater than service done in the limelight’.
Prakasam was not prepared to go so far, however. At the end of April 1946, he assumed office as Prime Minister of the Madras Presidency.
It is unlikely that T Prakasam is much more than a name to Narendra Modi. On the other hand, he has sought increasingly to associate himself with the legacies of Gandhi and Patel. In his speeches he has regularly praised both men, pledging to built a massive statue of the Sardar, and beginning the Swachch Bharat Abhiyan on the Mahatma’s birthday.
Yet the letters I have quoted show that on the question of receiving gifts Mr Modi stands on the side of the now mostly forgotten Prakasam against the much-celebrated Gandhi and Patel. For had they been around, the Sardar and the Mahatma would surely have disapproved of the suit the Prime Minister wore; partly because of the exhibitionism involved, but mostly because of the principle upheld by them that a person in public life must not accept personal gifts from private individuals. It is also hard to imagine that Gandhi or Patel would have approved of an auction where sycophantic businessmen outbid one another to show their love for the suit their hero had once worn.
There is, however, one argument the Prime Minister’s admirers could make in his defence. They might state that the ‘boundless love’ shown in such gifts was proof of the ‘increasing mutual identification between the nation’ and Mr Modi.
(Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India. You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_Guha. The views expressed by the author are personal.)