Right Word | The ‘Culture of corruption’ that plagues Indian politics originated in the Nehru era

As one traverses through the contemporary history of India especially post-Independence, the origin of this ‘culture of corruption’ can be traced back to the Nehru era

Right Word |  The 'Culture of corruption' that plagues Indian politics originated in the Nehru era

Walter Crocker, an Australian diplomat who had a long stint in Delhi during the Nehru era and who was also on friendly terms with Nehru, in his book Nehru: A Contemporary’s Estimate, writes ‘This gross scandal (making and selling of spurious drugs) was exposed repeatedly. But nothing was done… Nehru gave much time to Congo, or other faraway places… but he did little that was effective about more than one largely manageable evil near at hand’. Wikimedia Commons/Los Angeles Times photographic archive at the UCLA Library

The questioning of Congress’ top leaders by the Enforcement Directorate in alleged cases of corruption has been contested by the Congress and the Opposition as a witch hunt. Meanwhile we have also witnessed some stunning revelations where crores of rupees have been found stacked in flats in raids conducted by the Enforcement Directorate. Some arrests have been made including that of a sitting minister of Trinamool Congress who was subsequently sacked by the chief minister of West Bengal and TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee.

Amidst the din of charges and counter-charges on these relevant developments, the point that probably we have missed so far as a nation is that where does the origin of these corrupt practices by the political executive in power lie?

As one traverses through the contemporary history of India especially post-Independence, the origin of this ‘culture of corruption’ can be traced back to the Nehru era. During the tenure of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, several scams and shady deals happened. Morality in politics was a victim of the political expediency during this era and that laid the foundation of this ‘culture of corruption’ that has plagued the country ever since. Let us try and take a look at what some of the independent observers had to say about corruption during the Nehru era that set the template where ‘integrity’ took a back seat when it suited Nehru. The template has become an all pervading malaise that has damaged the Indian polity since then.

Walter Crocker, an Australian diplomat who had a long stint in Delhi during the Nehru era and who was also on friendly terms with Nehru has made some observations in this regard in his Nehru: A Contemporary’s Estimate. Based largely on first-hand experiences, Crocker mentions in the biographical account of Nehru a scandal related to spurious drugs that had rocked India. Crocker says, “This gross scandal (making and selling of spurious drugs) was exposed repeatedly. But nothing was done. The family of one of Nehru’s ministers was involved in it. Nehru gave a lot of time to Congo, or other faraway places, or to faraway things like collective farming, but he did little that was effective about more than one largely manageable evil near at hand.”

Crocker goes on to say, “Thus yet again, the corruption among highly placed colleagues in the party and in the government. Was it really unavoidable for him to connive with these malefactors?”

About Punjab, Crocker observed, “…in the Punjab, the state which adjoins Delhi, a regime flourished for as long as eight years (1956-64), the last eight years of Nehru’s life which was vitiated with corruption and abuse of power… Nehru, apparently convinced that the chief minister was indispensable for maintaining political stability in the state… resisted demands for an inquiry.”

Ultimately, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Justice SR Das held an inquiry into various allegations. Kairon resigned from the post of chief minister after Justice Das’ report was released. This report was released three weeks after Nehru’s death on 27 May 1964.

Right Word Culture of corruption that plagues Indian polity originated in Nehru era

Former chief minister of Punjab, Partap Singh Kairon with then prime minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru on 30 December 1958. Wikimedia Commons

On Courtiers, Sycophants and Hangers

Political commentators, across the board, have largely blamed Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi for turning Congress from an ideological party to a fiefdom and filling her Cabinet with cronies discounting competence. However, it appears that Indira just carried forward the ‘legacy’ created by Nehru!

Veteran journalist Durga Das has given a first-hand account of what was happening in Congress and the government during the Nehru era in his seminal work, India from Curzon to Nehru and After.

The first instance cited by Das explains how as early as 1952, Nehru had turned Congress into a personal fiefdom notwithstanding the optics that have been created to project him as a revolutionary democrat.

“There was a great rush for Congress tickets (for the first general elections of 1952) because of the general feeling that ‘even a lamp post carrying the Congress tickets will win’. As was natural, many candidates made allegations of corruption, immorality and black marketing against their rivals. A committee was appointed to screen the applications and its slogan was: Let us give Nehru the 500 men he wants and five years — and leave the rest to him.’ Gandhi’s wishes that deserving men from various professions and spheres of activity be inducted into public life were quietly forgotten,” recounted Das.

He further observed that the Congress won the general election, and that gave birth to a new phase in India’s political life, namely the emergence of top courtiers, sycophants and hangers-on.

“When I asked (Maulana Abul Kalam) Azad to comment on this development he said: ‘We are still feudal but what has distressed me is that many good persons have been denied tickets because the trusted courtiers had labeled them as anti-Nehru’. “

Poll Games

Das has mentioned a couple of instances where certain decisions by the administrative machinery helped Nehru to get an edge over his rivals.

Citing one of these instances, Das said, “Nehru did not think it proper to travel for his election campaign in the airplane he used for official purposes as prime minister. At the same time, neither he nor the Congress party could afford to charter a plane for the purpose. An obliging Auditor-General saved Nehru’s conscience by devising a convenient formula. The prime minister’s life, he said, must be secured against all risks, and this could be assured best, if he traveled by air. Air transport would avoid the need for large security staff required of he traveled by rail. Since it was the nation’s responsibility to see to its security, the nation must pay for it.”

He continued, “So, a rule was framed that Nehru would pay the government only the normal fare chargeable by civil airlines for transporting a passenger. The fares of the security staff accompanying him would be paid from government funds, and any Congressman accompanying Nehru would pay his own way. Thus, by contributing a bare fraction of the total expenses, Nehru was able to acquire a mobility which multiplied a hundredfold his effectiveness as a campaigner and vote-catcher. As Prime Minister Nehru received top priority in all communication media, particularly the press and the government-controlled radio. Day after day Nehru’s picture and speeches would crowd out anything said by his rivals and the opposing political parties.”

The writer, an author and columnist, has written several books. Views expressed are personal.

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