As a rookie journalist in the early 1980s, I had the good fortune to cover an event graced by Sushila Nayyar, an associate of Mahatma Gandhi and India’s first health minister.
She was being felicitated by an industrial house and, while I was yet to come to an understanding of the way things prevailed in our country, I was not surprised that those we today call ‘corporates’ were gathered there in large numbers, each one urging her to use her influence with Congress bosses to ease up on government controls and make their lives less miserable.
I do not quite remember what office she might have held at the time but what she said at the end of her address has been etched in my mind as though with a chiseled knife. “Of course, you need to make money. And we, too, need you to make money. Aap ki jebein bhari rahein aur hamare haath aapki jebon mein dhare rahein (May your pockets be full and our hands stay in those pockets).’’
Even then I knew she had said something sensational. So I made my way towards her after the event to ask her what she had meant by that statement. She gave me the kind of contemptuous look that can only be expected from a doyenne of her years dealing with an ignoramus less than half her age. “How do you think we got our freedom?’’ she asked. “Who financed Gandhiji? Who built his ashrams? You think we could have defeated the mighty British without the support we got from our own business houses?’’
Then, taking pity at my bewilderment, she explained how it was absolutely impossible for politics to survive without economics. “If we had not had the support of these industrialists [and she named some of the best-known names in the country], we might still have been under British rule. And governments cannot generate enough money to help the poor without the generosity of the rich. So we have to facilitate their interests.’’
By the end of that conversation, I had had my first enduring lesson on the symbiosis between politicians and businessmen. At Nayyar’s time, though, this symbiosis was directed towards development — getting them to fund schools, hospitals, wells, etc, in remote and underdeveloped areas of the country. Today, politicians are mostly plumping up their own pockets with quid pro quos to/from the corporates. The balance that Gandhiji and Pandit Nehru had maintained between corporate interests and those of the underprivileged in the country is now an old story and Congress leaders of today do not even know their own honest history.
It is not surprising, then, that Maharashtra’s Congress legislators have sounded the bugle of revolt against chief minister Prithviraj Chavan. He has done a commendable job of pursuing his brief of cleaning up the image of the government and the party. But in pursuit of that agenda, he has also succeeded in stalling most projects and virtually stamping out all chances of the Congress returning to power in 2014.
This has to be the first time ever that Congress MLAs have sworn that they will not seek party tickets in 2014 — they are unable to pursue works in their constituencies because the CM is suspicious of all their demands and they have alienated not just party workers but also their voters for their inability to deliver on their promises.
While the first note of rebellion against Chavan was raised on Monday by supporters of his predecessor Ashok Chavan, embroiled in the Adarsh scam, there are other voices, too, singing the same refrain. It might have escaped the CM’s notice but his legislators know that the NCP — which is standing steadfastly behind their own ministers against whom there might be similar allegations — is building its own bases in Congress bastions by fulfilling some of the aspirations of these Congress voters.
The plan, I am told, is to put up rebel NCP candidates at the next elections — if they are as lucky, as in 1995 when Sharad Pawar’s similar tactics threw up 45 Congress rebels in a House of 288, the NCP will seize the moment to form its own government. With, of course, the Congress bringing up the rump.
Chavan, then, needs to evolve his own balancing act in a hurry. Else history might look upon him as a destroyer, rather than a preserver, of his party's interests. That, really, was not his brief.