The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Money power might be less potent if it were not concealed

This paper’s “Neta Worth” feature reminds me of the jingle, attributed to Ajoy Mukherjee during West Bengal’s United Front regime, “Oporey bhara, nichey bhara;/ Modhikhaney bastuhara. Tenants above, tenants below,/ Homeless in between.” The candidates whose finances have been published seem engaged in a competition to show the world how modest is their means. Of course, the really poor have no place in politics except to turn up in millions on voting day. But candidates must pretend to be poor. This is partly because the manner of wealth accumulation often does not bear scrutiny. But a deeper reason equates virtue with impecuniousness. A younger and idealistic Atal Bihari Vajpayee, naturally in opposition then, lamented that Indian politicians start their legislative careers with a lie — the false spending returns they submit. Now, the falsehood begins even before the election.

Financial untruth is not the only instance of dishonesty. It may not even be the worst. The promise to throw open for worship all “old religious places”, the media’s sudden raking up of the Bofors affair under the guise of investigative journalism (a phony ploy if ever there was one), or the distribution of saris (earlier, they lured voters with copper vessels, electric fans, cycle rickshaws and free school meals) are all corrupt practices, whatever the law might say. But to conceal riches and ostentatiously flaunt poverty are rooted deep in India’s psyche.

The fiction that votes are won by simple merit alone drives money underground. The chain effect spreads through every human activity. In this respect, India is not unlike the old Soviet Union which, as Margaret Thatcher famously said, was a country only for the rich. Those without influence have to buy their way here, paying for the simplest services that are supposed to be provided free and readily. Jawaharlal Nehru’s claim that he spent only fifty rupees a month captured the carelessness of wealth, birth and privilege. J.R.D. Tata, too, would trot out how small his income was. Such callousness ranks with the ingenuousness of the Somerset Maugham character who never understood why the poor did not ring for dinner when they felt hungry.

Returning to the disclosures, Srikantadatta Narasimharaja Wodeyar is probably officially the richest candidate with acknowledged assets of Rs 1,522.33 crore. It’s a fortune by any reckoning but, in this case, is it all' His jewellery and real estate must be priceless. I wangled an invitation once to the Dusserah durbar over which his father, the last maharaja of Mysore, presided. Because I wore an ordinary lounge suit and not the court dress of white and gold turban, black sherwani and white and gold sash, I was shunted up to a screened gallery in Mysore’s vast and ornate palace. Even from there I could see his portly highness ablaze with jewels — surely worth more than the Rs 75,000 Wodeyar mentions' — as he bowed deeply to the golden guddee before mounting it.

Another royal, Shubhanginiraje Gaekwad, the BJP candidate from Kheda in Gujarat, claims assets of only Rs 60 lakh and jewellery worth no more than Rs 14 lakh. Now, that is a joke if ever there was one. I don’t know who her parents are, but her husband is hereditary maharaja of Baroda, one of the five biggest princes of British India, entitled to a 21-gun salute. Baroda’s legendary wealth included fabulous palaces, some of the world’s best known diamonds, the fashionable food shop, Fortnum and Mason, in London, as well as other property in England. Some of it may have been sold, placed in trust or converted into devattar property, but Madam Gaekwad must cut a sorry figure indeed among India’s glitterati, royal and non-royal, if her personal baubles are worth no more than Rs 14 lakh.

Among commoners who see no reason to hide their affluence under a bushel of poverty, the ebullient Ram Jethmalani admits to Rs 3.34 crore in assets including a Bombay flat worth Rs 1.25 crore, and £ 55,000, presumably in a London bank. Jethmalani is a Sindhi refugee from Pakistan who has earned every penny he owns. What I admire even more is that he sees no reason to be ashamed of success. When a pretty young woman tried to floor him in my house by asking why he accepted briefs from smugglers and criminals, it was she who was floored by the candour of his riposte. How else would be earn enough, Jethmalani asked, to take up public interest cases without a fee'

I am also intrigued by Chandrababu Naidu’s return as, indeed, by the entire information technology phenomenon. I suspect sometimes that hi-tech whiz kid Naidu is hailed as a deliverer simply because of his laptop. For me the computer is no more than another tool of efficient operations like typewriters or telephones in an earlier age. The only test of a chief minister’s achievement lies in higher literacy, improved healthcare and longevity, better crops, industrial productivity and a clean, caring and efficient administration. Maybe, Andhra Pradesh does soar above the rest of the country in all these respects. But has the evidence been collected to prove this' Or is a computer regarded as an end in itself'

Nor can I understand how Naidu owes nearly Rs 32 lakh more than his total assets. He is not a businessman who buys and sells with a flexible margin. If he has borrowed funds, what collateral does he offer' A second mystery concerns his wife’s worth of Rs 19.34 crore, so much more than the Rs 1.58 crore to which he admits. Did the late N.T. Rama Rao then bequeath a fortune to each of his offspring' Or has the chief minister’s wife earned her wealth through her own talents and efforts' Perish the thought that the money actually belongs to her husband, though held in her name.

The modest Rs 26.70 lakh shown by the other young chief minister, Naveen Patnaik, reminds me of a time when I was considering settling down in Puri. They showed me an abandoned half-built house in the second row from the beach and said that since the area was becoming congested, I might get it cheap from Biju Patnaik, the owner. I went to see him in the capital’s Utkal Bhavan and found an old and ailing man, very different from the robust chief minister I had known years earlier. “Not being property minded…” he began when I broached the subject, and claimed to have no memory of the house. I went back to Puri, made inquiries and learnt what I should have discovered earlier — that the authorities had acquired it in lieu of tax arrears.

These stories could go on. It’s the discrepancies that matter. When Vasundhara Raje Scindia was canvassing in an earlier election, she went around bedecked in jewellery. Her argument was that the people came to see a princess and it would not be politic to disappoint them. A harijan voter in Jagjivan Ram’s Bihar constituency remarked in 1979 that he was not born to rule, whereas Indira Gandhi was. Voters do not lack honesty or understanding.

True, posturing exists elsewhere too, and I remember a British election meeting where Aneurin Bevan was bawling, “Comrades, the last time I was down a mine …” when my neighbour muttered, “That was a long long time ago!” But pretence and hypocrisy are of epidemic proportions in this country.

There are so many admiring tales of patriots who spurned British privilege, of princes who were mistaken because of their simplicity for common men. They are none of them necessary. Life would be altogether less complicated if it were not fashionable among the rich to pretend that money doesn’t exist. There is a chance that money power might be less potent if it were not so diligently concealed.

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