Given Mamata Banerjee’s unconcealed dislike of the new president of India, the ceremony with which he was received at Calcutta airport on Friday offered welcome reassurance that respect for authority still transcends political and personal divisions and the lure of iconoclastic modernity. Beyond that, however, there are sound reasons for respecting the “son of the world” as also the “son of Bengal”, despite the chief minister’s carping objection in a television interview in the run-up to the presidential election.
I can think of at least two reasons that redound to Mukherjee’s credit, one of particular interest to Bengalis. Neither fructified. But even in failure, they testified to the concerns of a man whose reputation as a consummate politician rules out everything in the popular mind save intrigue and politicking. The first concern — the injustice done to East Bengal refugees, especially when contrasted with the favours showered on those from West Punjab — was significant because Mukherjee, being securely rooted in Birbhum in West Bengal, is not himself a displaced bangal. His second achievement was to anticipate the importance of foreign direct investment long before FDI became a fashionable catchword and try to tap non-resident Indians long before NRIs became pampered prodigal sons.
He was in the Bangla Congress when he compiled what I think is the most comprehensive analysis ever attempted of the differences between Punjab and Bengal refugees. Numbers were compared, political events that exacerbated the problem described, direct and indirect official help meticulously listed, and the Centre’s partisan approach exposed. Explaining the disastrous effects of the 1950 Nehru-Liaquat Ali pact, Mukherjee admitted that eastern India didn’t have abandoned Muslim property that East Bengal refugees could take over as West Punjabis had done in Delhi and its environs. But he also underlined the much higher per capita spending in the west and the various heads under which money was disbursed so that it didn’t look like refugee relief.
Ostensibly separate Central projects like the carefully planned and generously endowed Faridabad industrial township or Chandigarh city also provided displaced Punjabis with homes and employment. There was nothing of the kind in West Bengal. Mukherjee wrote this in the form of a letter to the editor that the Statesman published down a full single column of its editorial page. Sadly, I have lost my clipping of a remarkable piece of journalism that, even more sadly, was not followed up and acted upon.
As for attracting expatriate Indian investment, readers may recall the outrage in April 1983, when London-based Swraj Paul invested Rs 13 crore in two Indian companies, Escorts and DCM. Five months earlier, Manmohan Singh, then the Reserve Bank of India governor, had declared India needed “a substantial inflow of resources from abroad both to supplement domestic savings and to finance the deficit in our balance of payments.” In identifying “a positive role for investments by non-resident Indians” the future prime minister was reiterating the message of Mukherjee’s first budget in February 1982. That budget plunged the country into its most acrimonious takeover row but also blazed a new trail and, once the storm had blown over, laid the foundations of future growth.
Describing remittances as a “manifestation of the close cultural and family ties” between Indians at home and abroad, Mukherjee allowed NRIs to “purchase shares of companies quoted on the stock exchanges subject to specific limits.” The limit was 40 per cent of equity in new or existing companies but NRIs enjoyed full repatriation rights. Other incentives included parity with residents in certain matters and exemption from gift, wealth and income tax in others. The hostility Paul’s response to this invitation aroused prompted Indira Gandhi, whom Mukherjee deifies with a sentimentality that contrasts oddly with his brisk pragmatism, to comment wryly that India’s supposedly free market industrialists demanded protection “just as bootleggers are said to favour prohibition.”
They did indeed. J.R.D. Tata, who led a protest delegation of tycoons to Mukherjee, spoke of the “danger of ‘black’ money going out of the country, laundered abroad, and brought back as ‘white’ money.” The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry accused the young finance minister of giving away too much. Though Indira Gandhi warned that unless “our people are willing to face some competition we will get hopelessly left behind”, even Manmohan Singh repudiated his own earlier enthusiasm to argue that “it is necessary to protect well-managed companies against takeover bids from abroad.” The media hysterically attacked Mukherjee and Paul. It was all a ruse either to encourage foreign predators or enable Indira Gandhi to repatriate her allegedly ill-gotten fortune or both.
Obstructed at every turn, Paul came to bitterly regret the costly, protracted and ultimately fruitless adventure. Yet, even the failure marked a psychological breakthrough in the armour of India’s complacent, ideologically-driven self-sufficiency. At one level, Mukherjee’s initiative, taken up by P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh nine years later as part of a bigger liberalization programme, led to last year’s $58 billion remittances, the highest any country received. At another, it revealed the rot at the heart of India’s crony capitalism. As Paul discovered, Indian industrialists “actually owned very small portions of their companies. Over the years, they had encashed their shareholdings, realized their monies, kept jobs for their families, and used government investment as their capital. Now, this free ride on public funds…was exposed.”
Mukherjee held his peace during the raging controversy when Escorts and DCM refused to register Paul’s shares and clamoured for the very government they had always reviled for its intrusive practices to intervene. The aphorism, attributed to Voltaire, Talleyrand and others, that speech is given to man to conceal his thoughts might have been written about him. In this, as over refugees, Mukherjee the realist went as far as political opinion, conditioned by decades of indoctrination, allowed. He made a point. He started a trend. More could not have been expected from a man for whom politics has always been the art of the possible. Abrasive confrontation is not his style.
If Banerjee’s tactical decision to vote for him did not indicate any change of attitude, neither do the protocol courtesies extended to the head of state. India’s upward-thrusting catch-as-catch-can society honours the chapras, not the chaprasi. We revere symbols. The elderly South Indian Brahmin with whom I shared an office was horrified when a cartoon in the anti-establishment New Statesman showed the lion and the unicorn in Britain’s royal coat of arms somehow preventing the crown, which had slipped to one side, from toppling off altogether. He put out his tongue, touched his ears and asked dolefully, “How can they insult the national symbol like this?”
The shameful posthumous treatment of Rao was the Delhi power elite’s studied insult to a man who had thwarted its ambitions. The Left Front government’s equally shameful indifference to Siddhartha Shankar Ray’s demise demonstrated the crucial importance of power and patronage. Of course, they will tear Mukherjee apart the moment he ceases to be president if he is still in public life. Already, one hears whispers in Delhi of economic mismanagement and the need to undo some of the harm he is supposed to have done in his last stint as finance minister. Before the demolition squads get down to serious work, Bengal — and India — should record a debt to him on the two counts cited here.
Despite saying self-deprecatingly that he has “become an antique in the theatre of economic activities”, Mukherjee must derive satisfaction from the knowledge that he set that ball rolling way back in 1982. Secondly, Bengalis should appreciate the lie he gave to the persistent canard that while the lusty Punjabi triumphed over adversity, the supine Bengali went under, whining for more and more government help.