Here are three anecdotes from our history. In December 1907, the Congress party met at Surat for a trial of strength between the ‘Moderates’, led by Pherozeshah Mehta, and the ‘Extremists’, led by Dadabhai Naoroji. As per Rajmohan Gandhi, the Moderates, steered by Mehta, tightly controlled the platform. When Tilak tried to raise a question, he was asked not to speak. Young Moderate volunteers tried to drag him down when he mounted the platform. Unmoved and defiant, Tilak faced the audience with folded hands. Suddenly, a shoe hurtled through the air and hit Mehta. Pandemonium followed. Men rushed about shouting with fury and waving long sticks. The session broke up in chaos.
The second anecdote. In the assembly elections held in early 1952, the final results from Madras gave the Congress only 152 out of 375 seats. Amidst conflicting claims, the Governor was unable to invite any leader to form the government. C Rajagopalachari had just returned to Madras after resigning as the Union Home Minister on grounds of age and fatigue. On 29 March, the Congress legislature party unanimously resolved to request Rajaji to lead it. The matter was referred to Nehru. One of the points made by Nehru was that if Rajaji agreed to lead, he should get himself elected as soon as possible to the Lower House in Madras. Rajaji, as the Governor noted, was ‘absolutely definite that he would in no circumstances stand for election’.
The new Governor, Sri Prakasa, who had served in the union cabinet with Rajaji, cooperated with the local Congress leaders. Rajaji was first nominated as a member of the Upper House under the category of persons ‘having special knowledge in such matters as literature, science, art and social service’. “In order that the matter may not look too obvious,” the Governor nominated “two or three persons along with him”. After this, the Congress legislature party elected Rajaji as its leader and he was sworn in as the CM of Madras.
In a similar situation in Bombay, Morarji Desai had lost his assembly seat in the 1952 elections. He was, however, elected leader of the legislature party and sworn in as the Chief Minister but later won a by-election to the Lower House. The same Morarji Desai, newly elected as the Prime Minister, was in London in June 1977, to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. As recounted by BK Nehru, India’s High Commissioner then, during his breakfast with Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, Morarji was eating cashew nuts, walnuts, almonds, raisins and chocolates in which the sweetener was not sugar but honey, specially imported from Switzerland by his son Kantibhai. Morarji recommended to the President of Singapore the excellence of his dish and advocated that it must be widely adopted. Lee Kuan Yew’s answer was that his country was not rich enough to afford the diet ,which he saw the Prime Minister of India eating.
Nowadays, many people pine for the pre-1947 Congress or Rajaji’s Swantatra Party or Morarji’s austerity. The idea that the quality of politics and political leadership has plummeted in the last three decades occupies a powerful place in public imagination. Perhaps the decline is real. But only superficially so. The proliferation of media means that there is far greater transparency and scrutiny of our current leaders than in the times past. A halo has to fall only a few inches to become a noose. None of our stalwarts — from Nehru to Patel to Ambedkar — were happy at the little media criticism that they faced in the early years of independence. Remember the First Amendment to the Indian Constitution, proposed by Patel, drafted by Ambedkar and moved by Nehru’s cabinet. Or the Press Bill passed in October 1951, “a personal triumph” of the then Home Minister, Rajaji.
Moreover, difficult times throw up great leaders. The independence movement and partition, or the Emergency in the 1970s, were periods of unusual patriotism, cooperation and mass participation. But even then, our politicians were normal, competitive people trying to survive and flourish within the system. Since then, leave alone politicians, all institutions — judiciary, media, military — have declined in public standing. Similar decline in public trust has taken place in other democracies, whether it be the US or in Europe. If the decline has been the same in all spheres of life, and across countries, then where does the problem lie? That is something to ponder over this Independence Day.
Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review