SATURDAY, 22 SEPTEMBER 2012 16:05
A SURYA PRAKASH
September 12, 2012, the birth centenary of Feroze Gandhi — India’s greatest investigative parliamentarian, crusader against corruption, advocate of press freedom and the first campaigner for the people’s right to information — has gone unnoticed. He was such a cerebral, diligent and ruthless pursuer of truth that he was once described by a fellow MP as a “dangerously well-informed person”. While the nation remains obsessed with the fortunes of the family which has 10, Janpath as its postal address, it appears to have forgotten the real Gandhi who bequeathed this magical surname to Sonia et al.
But why blame the nation when the fault lies with an ungrateful Government controlled by this ungrateful family. Last year the Government splurged Rs7.25 crore on newspaper advertisements on the occasion of the birth anniversaries of Indira and Rajiv, but pretends not to notice Feroze’s birth centenary. There may be other reasons for this display of ungratefulness. Since the Government is engulfed in scams and is employing undemocratic means to curtail parliamentary investigations, how can it hail the man who was described as the greatest campaigner against corruption?
Let us leave the Manmohan Singh Government to wallow in its pettiness and pay our tribute to the man who demanded a strong ethical framework for governance during the formative years of our democracy.
Feroze Gandhi began life as a freedom fighter when still in his teens and went to jail on several occasions. He became a member of the Provisional Parliament in 1950 and was elected to the Lok Sabha from Rae Bareli in 1952 and 1957. He emerged as a formidable parliamentarian with his maiden speech on the Insurance (Amendment) Bill in December 1955 in which he exposed the cunning and wicked ways of the proprietors of several private insurance companies. Having done some painstaking research, he held the Lok Sabha in thrall as he narrated story after story about how business barons and companies like the Dalmia-Jain Group played around with the funds of insurers and the web of lies that these companies put out to fool insurers, banks, shareholders and Government. At the end of his narration he demanded strong measures to protect public funds invested in insurance companies, meaning nationalisation of the insurance business.
Such was his impact that within two months the President promulgated an Ordinance nationalising the insurance industry. Happy with the outcome, Feroze Gandhi said: “To hold a horse you need a rein; to hold an elephant you need a chain.”
In November 1957, Ram Subhag Singh and Feroze Gandhi got wind of some shady deals between LIC and HD Mundhra, an industrialist. Singh fired the opening shot via a question in which he asked: Whether LIC had purchased large blocks of shares from different companies owned by Mundhra?
Deputy Minister of Finance: Towards the end of June 1957, the corporation had invested Rs1,26,86,100 “in concerns in which Shri HD Mundhra is said to have an interest”.
Ram Subhag Singh again asked whether nationalisation of life insurance was not meant to stop such “spurious investments”.
Then Finance Minister TT Krishnamachari (TTK) rose to say the investments were not spurious. LIC had invested in these companies “solely with a view to getting a return and
making a safe investment...”
Feroze Gandhi: May I know whether it is a fact that a few months ago shares were purchased at the higher price than the market price of those very shares on that particular day...?
TTK: I have been told that no such thing has happened.
These words would soon come to haunt the Minister and cost him his job. Through this brief exchange during Question Hour, Singh and Gandhi had laid a neat trap into which the Minister had fallen. As the drama unfolded over the next year in Parliament, people realised the extraordinary power of Parliament and the potential power of an MP.
Dissatisfied with the Minister’s reply, Feroze initiated a Half-Hour Discussion on the subject. He said: “A mutiny in my mind has compelled me to raise this debate. When things of such magnitude, as I shall describe to you later, occur, silence becomes a crime.” He unfolded the story of murky deals between LIC and Mundhra companies as he attempted to “breach the ramparts” of the Minister’s defence. The Minister had claimed that the Government had no particular interest in Mundhra companies but Feroze showed that over a six month period in 1957, on 19 occasions, LIC had bought shares of the Mundhra Group for Rs1.56 crore. Did this not amount to favouring one individual?
Feroze Gandhi then went on to show how LIC had allowed itself to be cheated. He obtained damning evidence of fraud from the stock exchanges. Shares of Mundhra companies had been artificially jacked up by 30-40 per cent in the week prior to the purchase of shares by LIC. For example, the share of Osler Lamp Manufacturing Company, which was quoted at Rs2.81 from June 17 onwards, suddenly jumped to Rs4 on June 24, a day prior to the purchase by LIC. Similarly, the shares of Angelo Brothers, which stagnated at Rs16.87 for a week, jumped to Rs20.25. These purchases were made on June 25 but by the time this debate took place in December, LIC’s Mundhra stocks had depreciated by Rs37 lakh.
Bowing to pressure, the Government announced the appointment of a commission of inquiry headed by Chief Justice MC Chagla of the Bombay High Court. Feroze promptly offered himself as a witness and was the first
to testify. Justice Chagla upheld Feroze’s contentions and said that the Finance Minister should take constitutional responsibility for what had happened. TTK tendered his resignation.
The most extraordinary aspect of Feroze Gandhi’s work was the forensic precision with which he collected facts and the manner in which he marshaled his arguments. While MPs do not exert themselves to obtain facts even in this Internet age, Feroze Gandhi sent telegrams to the Calcutta Stock Exchange and obtained the quotations for Mundhra companies between June 17 and 24, 1957. When he tabulated the information, the effect was dramatic. Referring to the power of Parliament he said: “We cannot hang people, nor can we chop off their necks. But we can turn their existence pretty difficult.” Later he said: “I think collectively we have demonstrated the terrific striking power of democracy. I think this inquiry has had a tonic effect on the entire country and administration.” When it was all over, Home Minister GB Pant said that there would be few parallels in political history to what had happened in this case — where a member of the ruling party has exposed the Government. It was all because of “the crusader” sitting in their midst.
A staunch democrat, Feroze had an abiding commitment to a free press and the people’s right to information. After he became an MP, he realised that while the Constitution guaranteed freedom of speech to MPs and insulated them from defamation suits, the press did not enjoy any such protection. Therefore, newspapers were afraid to report the proceedings of Parliament.
“The law of libel hangs like the sword of Damocles over the head of every editor and correspondent,” Feroze said, adding that this fear operated like a “silent censor” and prevented people from knowing that which they have a right to know. The remedy lay in Parliament passing a law to protect the press. Feroze examined the legal position in other democracies, consulted fellow MPs and journalists and drafted the Proceedings of Legislature (Protection of Publication) Bill. It was passed by the House in May 1956 and gave the press much needed protection while reporting what transpired in Parliament. In fact, but for this law, the media would have had great difficulty in reporting the LIC-Mundhra Scandal as it unfolded in Parliament. In an unusual gesture, the Government allowed a private member to draft and move a Bill. It is a different story that his widow, Indira Gandhi, repealed this law to gag the press during the infamous Emergency in 1975-77. Subsequently, the law was restored.
Feroze scrutinised lazy ministerial pronouncements with a fine tooth comb and caught them when they spoke without applying their minds to the issue at hand. For example, the Railway Minister had informed the House that poor punctuality of trains was because the tracks got breached during the monsoons. Feroze pulled out railways’ statistics and showed that in July when there were 38 breaches of tracks, punctuality was 78 per cent but in December, when there were no breaches, punctuality dropped to 75.7 per cent. So, the reality was just the opposite of what the Minister had said!
Such was his commitment that often the Opposition looked redundant. Time and again, Feroze would lead the charge and the Opposition would follow in his footsteps. They would often begin their speeches by paying him a tribute. He was like the Head Boy or Prefect in a school. The only job assigned to the rest was to just fall in line. Over the last 50 years, there is not a single MP in the Lok Sabha’s treasury benches who has made the Opposition look superfluous like Feroze did.
The Gandhi family (Sonia et al) has forgotten the Gandhi who gave them their identity. If only they had remained loyal to the core values that this brand originally promised — abiding commitment to democracy, public good over personal gain, country above party and phenomenal grit to pursue truth — one would not have seen the terrible erosion in brand equity. The vote-pulling capacity of Brand Gandhi has slumped from around 45 per cent in national elections during the Indira Gandhi era to around 25 per cent or less at this juncture.
As Tarun Kumar Mukhopadhyaya, who has done a brilliant parliamentary biography of Feroze Gandhi, has said: “He (Feroze) was completely free from malice and successfully avoided all pettiness. Indeed, Feroze’s tenure in Parliament, brief though it was, engendered and encouraged public esteem for democratic institutions and faith in the integrity of public men.” One can imagine how critical Feroze’s contribution was because in the 1950s India was a fledgling democracy. But all these eulogies are nothing compared to the tribute the greatest Gandhi paid to him when he was a young man. “If I could get seven boys like Feroze to work for me, I (would) get swaraj in seven days,” Mahatma Gandhi is said to have told Feroze’s mother Rattimai in Allahabad in 1931, according to Katherine Frank, Indira Gandhi’s biographer. Should we say more?