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IDEOLOGY AND FRIENDSHIP

- Exciting but not always an easy phase

When I had completed a year in government I got somewhat restless. Reaching the conclusion that official bondage was not my cup of tea, I left the ministry of finance and went out of the country on a United Nations assignment. Returning in January 1957, I joined a private research outfit in New Delhi, in the hope that it would give me more elbow room. The weeks that followed were surcharged with excitements and expectations. The state assembly elections were soon on and, as the results came trickling in, it appeared that a kind of miracle was about to take place, the communist party might attain a majority in the Kerala elections and form the government there, the first democratically elected communist regime was about to emerge. The poll contests were very close and whether the communists would get the majority in Kerala hinged upon the very last result to be announced. The communist party nominee for that particular seat was V.R. Krishna Iyer, later a justice of the Supreme Court. I still remember vividly that fantastic evening. Some of us Left-minded youngsters were gathered at the intersection of Connaught Place and Janpath; there was a shop selling electric wares at that corner touching the Regal cinema. A radio from inside the shop blared the news of Krishna Iyer winning the seat; it was now certain that the Communist Party of India was going to form the state government. The eight or 10 of us loitering outside the shop were determined to make an occasion of it. We joined arms together and blocked the entry from Janpath to Connaught Place, shouting lusty victory slogans and forcing the traffic to come to a dead stop, at that busiest of intersections, for about 10 minutes of thereabouts in order to let the world know what a wonderful thing had just occurred. Among those who were my co-celebrators was P. K. Gopalakrishnan, D. P. Mukerji’s student at the sociology classes at the Lucknow University. He later got disenchanted with the CPI, became very chummy with A.K. Antony and joined the Congress, ending up as the vice-president of the Kerala state Congress committee. Another one was T. K.N. Unnithan, who later became a very respectable and successful vice-chancellor for a number of terms at the Rajasthan University.

More exciting things followed almost immediately. Within 10 days I got a message from the party that I must straightaway proceed to Trivandrum to help the new communist government to prepare the first annual budget, the very first budget to be presented by communists in India. The boss of the research organization I worked for was an arch-reactionary. I therefore had to concoct a story about a close relative being taken terminally ill in Calcutta, so that I needed leave for a week. I arrived in Trivandrum to discover that my friend Iqbal Gulati was already there from Baroda. He was with the university there and therefore could stretch the period of his stay, which was not possible in my case. Anyway, the Opposition in Kerala were a determined lot. That they lost such a close contest made them even more determined to give the new communist regime no peace. And there was already speculation about how the communists would use their being in government in Kerala as a base for spreading their international conspiracy. Both of us were, therefore, instructed to desist from circulation because propaganda might rear its head that we had arrived in Kerala as part of that conspiracy. We were kept in a secluded house remote from the city centre and were cut off from all communication. Our sole visitor was the Kerala state secretary of the party, M.N. Govindan Nair, and we would meet the chief minister, Comrade E.M.S., and the finance minister, Achutha Menon, either at their residence or in the party office. It was high adventure, but we worked hard and did our sincerest to make meaningful the first communist budget in the country with enough indicators of consideration for the oppressed sections. It is a pity I retain little memory of any of the details we chose to insert.

By now, of course, my political inclinations were well known to Pandara Road friends. But, in spite of occasional question marks over the worthwhileness of pursuing a policy of reaching an understanding with China, Nikita Khrushchev continued to attract a lot of admiring attention in Delhi’s official circles. There was as yet no general disenchantment in the country with the Left and E.M.S. and his communist regime in Kerala presented a phenomenon which was altogether a new experience. Those among friends who held contrary political views would now and then have exchanges full of banter; that was about all. When in early 1959, I proceeded to Washington, D.C. on a teaching assignment with the Economic Development Institute sponsored by the World Bank, I did not suffer from any pangs of conscience. Nor did party leaders demur. We agreed on the quantum of levy I would pay regularly and the modality of depositing it.

The four years in the United States of America, in fact, further radicalized my political convictions. It was not just the revolt of the American youth against the idiocy of the US invasion of Vietnam. I saw with my own eyes how acute the colour divide was in Washington, D.C. and the kind of inhuman instrumentalities enforced to keep subjugated the black population. When I returned home in early 1963, my Left views had grown even more rigid.

My first two years in Washington overlapped with I.G. Patel’s tenure with the International Monetary Fund as India’s alternate executive director. His apartment was reasonably close to ours. His wife was away at Radcliffe and most of the evenings I.G. would come over for dinner with us. I retain the happiest memories of those evenings together. His charm and intellectual powers were both non pareil. We knew about each other’s ideological beliefs: he was a typical Pigovian liberal in the Cambridge tradition and I had my runaway Left ideas. These hardly intruded into our friendship and regard for each other. After dinner, we would often go out to watch a film or to call upon common friends. Some evenings scrabble was the post-dinner additional item. One picture I particularly recollect. We were waiting for dinner to be served by my wife; I.G. would stretch himself all the way on a long sofa in the living room and try singing full-throatedly one or two of his favourite Tagore songs with a classical base.

There was only one occasion when political tension disturbed this spell of idyllic camaraderie. It was November 1959 and the first border incident with Chinese troops had just taken place when a couple of Indian jawans got killed. The three of us were playing scrabble when I.G. casually referred to the episode and condemned with a sharp tongue China’s attitude. I was mild enough in my comment that perhaps the Chinese might have another version to narrate. I.G. flared up, “When my prime minister says something, I believe him.” The discussion had to terminate after this definitive statement. A few moments of stony silence, and scrabble was resumed.

I returned home to Calcutta, with the expectation of enjoying like-minded company. K.T. Chandy, who headed the management institute where I agreed to take charge of the economic faculty, had an interesting past. While in London in the late 1930s to study law, he was very much a part of the young Indian student community who were drawn to socialist ideology. The crowd he moved with included Jyoti Basu, Snehangshu Acharyya and the rest of the young Bengal crowd, but also, P.N. Haksar and Mohan Kumaramangalam. While dreaming socialism, they also worked assiduously for Krishna Menon’s India League, where they befriended two young American co-volunteers, Daniel Thorner and his betrothed, Alice Ginsburg. Jyoti Basu once mentioned to me that in London their usual meeting place was P.N. Haksar’s flat, which was the most commodious; among the regulars, K.T. Chandy flaunted the reddest tie. Times change. After the heady London days, Chandy joined a Dutch-British multinational giant which had made deep inroads into India’s market. Chandy gradually rose to be a director of its Indian entity with a fabulous salary. He, however, maintained his contacts with both Krishna Menon and his former communist friends and was an enthusiastic supporter of the Indian People’s Theatre Association movement in Bombay. Daniel Thorner introduced me to him, and he promptly invited me to join his institute in Calcutta. Chandy gave me a free rein to gather bright and intelligent scholars from different disciplines for the institute. It just happened that some of them who joined at my initiative had socialist convictions. Quality, however, counts and the milieu in the institute in the mid-1960s was far, far different from what could be expected from a run-of-the-mill assembly of so-called management experts.

It was the period when India, especially its middle class, was going through an acute emotional upheaval. The Indo-China border clashes resulted in a serious drubbing received by the Indian troops. A sense of both shame and outrage flooded the country along with strong anti-Chinese sentiments which generalized into a deep distrust of the Left. The Mahalanobis plan framework was an associate victim. The implications of implementing it for the country’s external accounts had not been spelled out. Conservative-minded civil servants in the ministry of finance and elsewhere began feeding lurid stories to the newspapers of how the Mahalanobis plan was designed to ruin India’s balance of payments and inhibit defence imports. Nehru’s charisma had ceased to work any more. Krishna Menon had to go as defence minister. But there was demand for more blood. Nehru’s prime ministerial position itself seemed threatened. In any case, the rebuff given by China had ensured the plummeting of Nehru’s influence within his own party and government. It also meant the end of the Mahalanobis era in India’s economic planning. Development was no longer the agenda, defence substituted it. The diversion of public funds to boost defence expenditure in any event affected severely the allocations for plan spending. Planning was, so to say, in banishment. There were other concurrent developments. During my occasional visits to Delhi, I discovered that ideology had begun to matter very much among officialdom. I.G. was holding the citadel in the ministry of finance as chief economic adviser. He was still friendly and polite, but I could feel he had developed a sneering attitude towards my Left credentials and was all sold on US-aided economic growth. In academic circles, too, even within so-called progressives, individuals chose to divide themselves into several groups: those who believed in egalitarianism yet were equally devout patriots were mistrustful of the communists. Even those who kept protesting that the economic transformation of the country was impossible without a drastic social revolution would refuse to think any further. Many friends became former friends. Others remained friends in the technical sense, but were careful enough not to refer to political issues.

This uneasy phase, however, did not last long. Prices kept rising at an abnormal pace. Food was scarce in many parts of the country, and even in the states that habitually raised surplus crop. Employment failed to pick up. The trade union movement, which had laid low for a while following the surge of anti-Left sentiment and in the wake of the China clashes, was gathering new momentum. Many of the Left leaders who were locked up during 1962-63 were being released one by one. Particularly in Bengal, with B.C. Roy’s death, a weak Congress administration made a hash of the public distribution system resulting in angry protest rallies. These were handled most ineptly. Indiscriminate police shooting on protestors aggravated the situation. To make the national economic situation worse, there was a short but very sharp fortnight’s warfare with Pakistan, causing heavy casualties and material losses on both sides. The Soviet leadership called the heads of the two warring nations to Tashkent where both the countries were forced to sign a treaty enforcing peace. It could be the strain of the hard negotiations which was too much for him — Lal Bahadur Shastri, who had succeeded as prime minister following Jawaharlal Nehru’s death in 1964, and was doing moderately well, had a severe cardiac attack right on the night the treaty was signed and died there.