Double Face Cream
By M J Akbar
Third Eye: India Today, December 31, 2010
Democracy is a structured, intensely competitive business that trades in the affection, apprehension and anger of its base commodity, the voter. Parties have to deliver a profit and loss account at least once every five years, and sometimes at midterms. If success is the ultimate elixir, then the punishment for failure is ego-numbing depression. (Despite being continuously in office in some of the most important states, the BJP has still not quite pulled out of the slump into which it disappeared after the defeat of 2004.)
A party needs a chairman/president, members of the board, chief executives for its various operations, a fertile breeding ground for ideas and plans, continuous management and occasionally reinvention of tested, traditional supply lines, functionaries and liquidity. The terminology may vary just a little (working committee instead of board of directors) but the responsibilities are similar. Without cash, the party machine shudders to a halt. Money, said the song, makes the world go round; and politics is a particularly thirsty world.
Even Mahatma Gandhi needed money for his brand, Congress. His prescription was market-driven. He organised liquidity during his first great insurrection, the Khilafat-Non-Cooperation Movement, from membership fees, famously four annas, or one-fourth of a rupee. Congress members were shareholders in his freedom enterprise. The four-anna member can, however, be notoriously demanding about how his four annas are spent. Gandhi's credibility kept Congress liquidity flowing. In the quarter century between Khilafat and his assassination, there was not a single charge of corruption against Congress, a privilege not shared by other parties. Of course, Congress has more than made up for lost opportunity after Independence, which brings us to the nub of the modern dilemma.
Today's politics cannot be sustained by shareholder subscriptions alone. The demands and costs of marketing have exploded. But while conventional industry can go to a bank for legitimate capital, political corporations have legislated themselves into the grey area of hypocrisy. They first sold the fiction that donations from the rich were impure, as if the impoverished had any surplus left. The great Indian middle class, unsurprisingly, is passionate about democracy, but wants someone else to pay for its pleasures. Black money rushed in where white money feared to tread. It has now become synonymous with the accounting system of democracy, elections.
The opposite of corruption in politics, therefore, is not honesty, but hypocrisy.
Let us take a look at two self-evidently honest contemporary politicians. Both are utterly indifferent to personal wealth. Both sit at the top of their pyramids, even if one of them presides over a largish 3-D triangle rather than Giza on the Nile. The two politicians are clearly Dr Manmohan Singh and Mamata Banerjee. Dr Singh revels in clean hands. That, however, begs a follow-up question that no one asks. If Dr Singh does not do so, then who collects money on behalf of the Congress? Party treasurers are fund-keepers; they are not fund-collectors. The pipeline may not go through Dr Singh's drawing room, but there are other transit junctions; and the power of government lubricates the process even if the prime minister is not a direct beneficiary. He knows that some of his Cabinet ministers, not all of them from DMK, rake it in by the sackful. Is a blindfold the new symbol of probity?
In Bengal, Mamata Banerjee has become the cat who has just been introduced to the cream. She has not rushed out to buy dozens of silk sarees and kilogrammes of Kolkata's famous golden jewellery. She treats such excesses of wealth as pockmarks, not beauty spots. At most she might have treated herself to an extra pair of tweezers. But she needs money to defeat the Left Front in the coming Assembly elections. Passion needs the momentum of cash. The surest sign of her return to power is the fact that Kolkata businessmen who have fed off Left Front largesse for three decades, turning public land into private wealth, are now queuing up to serve the Mamata cause. She is not so foolish as to spurn them. The Left Front is dealing with an unfamiliar quandary: when a moneybag tells you he only has a wallet, you know you are in electoral trouble.
The existentialist dilemma before Indian democracy is stark: it cannot co-exist with financial honesty. It does not matter if you are personally incorruptible; you have to be institutionally corrupt in order to engage in the business of democracy. The moral code of elections is uncomplicated: Don't ask. Don't tell. And for God's sake don't get caught.