We all talk about how India's politicians were a different kettle of kurta-clads in the early days after independence. Being part of a start-up, they were raring to go, serious about taking a shot at nation-building, regardless of how their views differed on the nature of the nation that they were building.
They were not all bright or selfless or good managers of a super-project. But they were different from those who would follow them in that they were more serious about identifying, and tackling, wrongdoings done in the name of public service. Not all of them owned up to their shenanigans. But if these misdemeanors were pointed out, passing the parcel — or making the parcel disappear — was far harder than it is today.
In other words, our early political class was susceptible to shame.
Last Tuesday, I was pleasantly intrigued to find a full-page Union ministry of culture advertisement (not in this newspaper) announcing the commemoration of the 150th birth anniversary of Motilal Nehru at a function in Delhi that day. But Motilal, the patriarch of the Nehru family and lawyer with a lucrative practice in Allahabad who went on to became a prime activist in the Indian National Movement and a two-time president of the Indian National Congress, wasn't the early politician that came to my mind. It was his son Jawaharlal's son-in-law Feroze Gandhi, whose birth centenary no one quite remembered on September 12, whom I recalled.
There's a pashmina shawl covering the figure of Feroze Jehangir Gandhi. He's the man that Indira Nehru married in 1942 to the displeasure of her father and about whom Congress mythology is thunderously quiet. His corresponding identity as simply the father of Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi is also disquieting, as if his presence in history is only to serve as genetic material for the continuation of a national masterclan.
But Feroze was much more than that. He was a Congress activist, having gone to jail several times in the 1930s. According to Katherine Frank in Indira, when his mother appealed to Mohandas Gandhi to persuade Feroze to leave politics, Gandhi replied, "If I could get seven boys like Feroze to work for me, I [would] get swaraj in seven days." In 1946, despite his tricky relationship with Nehru, Feroze became the director of the Lucknow-based National Herald that his father-in-law had founded nine years ago. He would become a member of the provincial parliament, and then a Lok Sabha MP for Rae Bareli. Not much good at running the business side of things at the newspaper, his roving eye and heavy drinking didn't make him much of a husband, leading Feroze and Indira to separate. But it was as a journalist-politician that Feroze showed courage that is unthinkable today.
You must understand that to expose wrongdoings in Nehru's government in 1956 — when Feroze launched an anti-corruption movement — was not the same benign spectator sport it is with Manmohan Singh's in 2012. The media was still cagey about running news that could embarrass the fledgling nation and halos were still firmly nailed to the heads of government. And yet, Feroze exposed a scam in 1958 whose trail led back to his father-in-law's government: the newly nationalised Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) had used premiums from 5.5 million policyholders to buy up shares at above-market prices in companies controlled by dodgy speculator-industrialist Haridas Mundhra.
Nehru's finance minister, TT Krishnamachari, maintained that the finance secretary had been responsible for the illegal purchase of shares. But a transparent enquiry commission, attended by the public at large and chaired by former Bombay High Court judge MC Chagla, stated that the minister was "constitutionally responsible for the action taken by his secretary". Krishnamachari resigned.
Sucheta Dalal, while noting the startling similarities in the LIC scandal with the Unit Trust of India (UTI) scam 43 years later (More Things Change, August 2001), pointed out with a thunderclap that the then finance minister Yashwant Sinha had stayed put — using Krishnamachari's defence. She added how a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) investigation had become the sham enquiry of choice. "Will politicians, especially in a multi-party JPC, ever allow corporate houses to be punished?" she asked knowing the answer a bit too well.
Today, Feroze Gandhi's exposé would have raised the usual questions: Why is he raising the issue? On whose behest is he raising the issue? How does someone with dodgy personal credentials dare to accuse a government led by a clean and decent prime minister of wrongdoings?
Which brings me back to the point of how things are different now with our political class and those critical of it. A nation gets the politicians it deserves. And the scandals. And the judgments. And sons-in-law too.