There is, one can say, nothing to it. The January we have just passed, like any month of any calendar year, was crowded with deaths. Three particular departures — occurring at three different locales, Mumbai, Bangalore and Calcutta — have found mention in the press. The mention has been selective, more elaborate in some parts of the country, only a fleeting mention in some others. One of the three individuals died in his late eighties, another in the late seventies and the third in the late sixties. Each of them had contributed, in some manner or other, to the shaping of Indian society in the second half of the twentieth century. The times are different though. There is a danger that, in the current fervour of wondrous sunshine supposedly beaming down on the land, all three will drop out of the nation’s collective memory. For history writing is, more often than not, an arrangement in optometry: the standard biases are of both myopia and astigmatism.
Krishna Raj, who edited, continuously for thirty-four years, the Economic and Political Weekly, died when barely sixty-seven. He was an unusual person, quiet but, at the same time, resolute in his views on the feasible optimum framework for the Indian economy as well as the Indian polity. He however never attempted to foist his views on those who, along with him, made the EPW into the qualitative marvel it is today. Which precisely was his, and the journal’s, strength. He would not go out of his way to entangle others in his ideology, nor would he per se involve himself in the foibles or convictions of others.
The journal in due course became a common arena for congregation of free thinkers who thought differently. The sum of these non-aligned comings and goings was the EPW. About one half of the journal’s space was left to intellectual calisthenics in the form of learned papers which, by virtue of their sophistication, attracted global attention. Few pretensions however could escape Krishna Raj’s scrutiny. His editing was severe. And yet, he had his charm and sincerity, vested in the weekly the glow of a live, dynamic organism. Young scholars would die to have their contributions published in the EPW; they were prepared to die for it even when they were for the moment excluded.
The journal proferred opinions, but never wore an opinionated air. This must be the reason it has continued to be held in high regard by the scholarly crowd, by civil servants, by politicians the civil servants served and the wider readership. A great believer in civil rights and with innate egalitarian instincts, Krishna Raj could be extraordinarily forthright whenever he felt authoritarianism was stealthily making its way into the citadels of democratic norms. The nation as an aggregate is an elusive quantum; it will still be quite a surprise if a future historian fails to render unto Krishna Raj what belongs to him: this modest fearless man wielded journalism as weaponry for defending rationality.
Or take the instance of Ramakrishna Hegde. He missed being the country’s prime minister in 1996. That hurt him. He gradually faded away after a brief interregnum as Union commerce minister in the National Democratic Alliance government. His acceptance of the latter office let down his admirers; he himself knew that, and gradually withdrew from public affairs. Many would nonetheless persist in maintaining that he was the best prime minister India missed having. Despite being a member of the oligarchy by birth, he had the common touch. He liked the good things in life; he could still make comfortable those who are somewhat apprehensive of such good things. He had the extraordinary ability to make friends, genuine friends, cutting across the political stratum; the twinkle in his eye was intended for just about everybody.
He had no illusion about the real content of Indian democracy. He loved his golf and his angling expeditions and the evening cocktail sessions. But it was the same person who stole a march even over the activists in West Bengal in devolving finances to the panchayat institutions. West Bengal ultimately scored over Karnataka because while the eastern state had the political infrastructure, Karnataka’s polity has been unable to extricate itself from its feudal moorings.
It was Hegde too, much more than perhaps all other state chief ministers in independent India, who realized the importance of an across-the-board alliance among state administrations irrespective of political differences; otherwise it would be impossible, he argued, to give flesh to the federal entity India ideally ought to be if it was to survive over the long stretch. The alliance of state governments he helped to organize, which looked so promising in the mid-Eighties, was permitted to wither away. Hegde was disappointed. There must have been a churning in his heart as he, out of office, watched from the sidelines the sorry sequence of missed opportunities to protect and advance states’ rights.
In India’s arid political desert, he presided over a verdure of civilization. That gentleman-politician is now gone. There can only be sadness at the thought that perhaps he would not even adorn a minor footnote in any reconnaissance of national events of the past few decades.
Minu Nariman Dastur died at the age of eighty-eight in Calcutta, which was his abode for the past half a century and more. Once upon a time he was a romantic hero to those who cherished the dream of an economically self-reliant Indian democratic republic. The bright young metallurgist who joined the Tatas in the Forties could have stuck to his career at Jamshedpur and reached, in safe, regular steps, the highest echelons of the Tisco outfit; apart from the innovation of continuous castings, he was, after all, also a Parsi. He chose to be different. He did not desert steel. On the contrary, he began to weave reveries around steel and structural engineering. At the point of time he did his arithmetic, the per capita cost of steel production in India was much less than in Japan. The country, besides, had ample supplies of iron ore, coal and young technologists and engineers. Dastur’s enthusiasm was in consonance with the ideas then afloat in the Indian Statistical Institute, in the planning commission, in the minds of young economists, all of whom mulled the core meaning of economic self-sufficiency.
Minu Dastur and Pitambar Pant made a fine pair. They dreamed steel, they dreamed heavy industry, they dreamed about India’s conquest of the world via the modality of steel ingots and structurals. Minu and Pitambar wanted to build an India whose strength would lie in “insourcing”, “insourcing” of raw materials, key intermediates as well as labour, thereby providing employment, growth and efficiency, everything together.
Civil servants and public sector-phobic politicians killed the dream. Pitambar got thrown out of the planning commission, Minu Dastur was not allowed to take charge of either Bokaro, or Vizag. India was slowly reconciled to a model of growth where decision-making was delegated back to the erstwhile imperialists — or their new incarnations. Minu Dastur withdrew into the shell of his consultancy firm. During the past decades, he was an exceptionally non-vocal man, making a living for himself and his close colleagues mostly from project engineering in Europe, west Asia and Latin America. He had few clients at home, certainly the country’s government had no time for him.
Flamboyance was not Minu’s style. He knew enough about the hypocrisy of politicians and the duplicitous ways of higher civil service. He took these things in his stride. What depressed him was the failure of India to reach the zenith of industrial achievements which by rights belonged to it. The ruling idea has shifted from independent development to dependent existence; with the nation left to the mercy of “outsourcing” by others, including “outsourcing” to shore up stock-market quotations.
Maybe old dreams, as much as old theories, do not really die out; they remain in suspension. It would have been grossly unjust if these three different men, each one hundred per cent a patriotic Indian, had gone through and ended the process of living simply adding insignificance to insignificance. The historical course is a funny business; it decides to reverse itself every now and then. Minu Dastur, Ramakrishna Hegde and Krishna Raj, all three of them, are gone; they deserve to be vindicated by history.