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Wednesday, 29 September 1999

From Garibi Hatao to Tandoor Murder: the Crime Story of Indian Politics

(Originally appeared in the 1990s in the Times of India, as published in M. D. Nalapat's book "Indutva", Har-Anand Publications, 1999)


Those were the days. Garibi hatao was the new mantra. A
brilliant young politician named Pranab Mukherjee was finance
minister of India. He presided over some of the highest income-
tax rates in Indian fiscal history. Indeed, if one excludes the
'primitive accumulation' of socialist capital in 1919-21 Russia
(where those having more than 10 roubles had to surrender the
difference or get shot), India probably had the highest marginal
tax rates in history, at one time touching 97.25 per cent of income.
However, despite such revolutionary zeal, restaurants were full
of big spenders, and marriage halls were crowded. Quite
obviously, 2.75 per cent of income went a long way.

It was not just through confiscatory taxation that the evil rich
were crushed. The Industries (Development & Regulation) Act
laid down stringent penalties for producing "beyond capacity":
efficiency was penalised. And few were efficient, at least on
record. They could not afford to be. As for taxpayers, obviously
they were honest. They must have been, seeing that only two or
three individuals went to jail each year for tax evasion.

Revolution was in the air, and a worker — Venkata Giri
Varaha Giri - was elected President of India, defeating the
nominee of the capitalists. Though we were only college students,
we wanted to participate in the ferment, We called on Mohan
Dharia, a devotee of proletarian internationalism, who was
staying in that symbol of village life, Bombay's Ambassador
Hotel. In a cavernous air-conditioned suite, waiters flitted about
with food and drink. We were not offered refreshments, nor
asked to sit. Social revolutionaries must learn to be tough. And
thick—skinned: Dharia and half a dozen other netas shooed us
away, saying they were going to the AICC in the Air-India
building.

As we trudged to the venue, we were passed by the netas
zipping there in air-conditioned limousines. Dharia took the
floor speaking for nearly an hour on the need for Gandhian
simplicity and revolutionary zeal. Snacks were served to those
on the dais, while our stomachs growled. Fleets of limousines
waited outside. Servitors were everywhere.

It is a fair guess that few of the bills for the facilities one saw
at the session were paid for by cheque. Today, 26 years later, the
situation is no different. Political leaders jet from city to city,
hotel to hotel, convention to meeting. Expensive banners float in
the air, posters cover the walls...And a pecking order gets
established. Junior cadres eat at roadside stalls, netas in five-star
luxury. Restaurants in the most expensive hotels are full of netas,
fresh from speechifying about "social justice". One such crusader
has been abroad eight times this year. No one asks at whose
expense.

But we should ask. We should demand that all expenses of
political leaders and their families, whether on travel or hotels
or major purchases, be made public. That all the assets bought
by them and their sons and daughters be similarly open to
scrutiny. The expenses of the typical "socialist" crusader would
tot up to several lakhs of rupees a month. Going to New York
or Paris — naturally in the defence of working-class interests —
does not come cheap.

There are two reasons why crime and politics have become
inseparable in India, The first is the fact that few political parties
have inner-party democracy. The rank and file have virtually no
say in who the office-bearers should be, So the Sushil Sharmas
— the procurers of ’services’ for netas — dominate. In such a
culture, promotion depends on attending the durbar of leaders,
gifts in tow, rather than on grassroots work. Unless a system is
introduced whereby the rank and file elect their leaders — as the
primary system ensures in the US — and have a say in who the
candidate should be, criminals will continue to infest Indian
politics.

Apart from introducing inner-party democracy, we need to
reduce the power of the state in decision-making. Just as high 
taxes breed evaders, needless regulation generate corruption.
Though considerable progress has been made during the current
dispensation in loosening the stranglehold of government - and,
by implication, politicians - much more needs to be done before
commonsense rather than suitcases determine the direction of
policy. Just as those who have black money are not dismayed by
high taxes, those auctioning decisions vehemently defend the
powers of the state to intrude into most areas of our economic
life. The tandoor murder episode has a long genesis, having been
spawned by the lifestyles of our leaders, the lack of accountability
to those who elected them, and the grip of government over our
lives.

We need to put away not just an indicted individual but the 
entire guilty system.





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