Closeup/ International Affairs

A Tiger In Winter

The first Annual Report on Morarji Desai

Arturo Gonzalez March 20 1978
Closeup/ International Affairs

A Tiger In Winter

The first Annual Report on Morarji Desai

Arturo Gonzalez March 20 1978

A Tiger In Winter

Closeup/ International Affairs

The first Annual Report on Morarji Desai

Arturo Gonzalez

If ever there’s a walking argument against compulsory retirement at age 65, it’s India’s starchy, white-capped, bespectacled, 82-year-old Moraiji Desai. À little more than a year ago he was behind bars, imprisoned by Indira Gandhi for 19 long months under the repressive “emergency” regulations which made her dictator over some 615 million people, with unanswerable power to keep political opponents like Desai in the slammer. Then came Indira’s ill-advised 1977 national elections. Desai walked out of prison an ex-con, patched together a five-party coalition called Janata (People) and in March of last year , gave Mrs. Gandhi the surprise of her political life by beating her at the ballot box and taking over her position as Indian prime minister. When the debris of the election was cleared away, most observers expected the aged Desai to play a gentle, grandfatherly role in softly guiding India slowly in a new political direction. Not a bit of it. He has jumped into the saddle and dug in his spurs. The vigorous octogenarian puts in a seven-to-seven working day, jet-hops around India nonstop, addresses gatherings of just a few dozen people or throngs of several hundred thousand and, fortified by a diet of fruit, yogurt, honey, nuts and garlic, shows every indication of being very much India’s man-in-charge.

Not that his nonstop efforts have been rewarded by instant success. The realities of rule in India are harsh; the country almost defies anyone to govern it. “A year ago,” sighs Ramesh Sattawalla, a Bombaybased office worker, “Janata swept into power here with the biggest possible mandate for change. The people voted for peaceful revolution and an end to 30 years of Congress Party’s ‘business as usual’ methods which, in India, has always meant balkanization, corruption and inefficiency.

“But what have we gotten instead? Strikes that tied up whole sections of the country. Unemployment. Inflation that doubled the price of cooking oil in just a few months. And the threat of national prohibition once again, a pious concept that should have been buried with Mahatma Gandhi. The whole country is suffering from a national hangover right now, and there are plenty of voters who believe Indira and the Congress Party back in power is the remedy. Like Mussolini, she made the railroads run on time.”

If Desai is worried about such sentiments, the hawkfaced ascetic doesn’t show it. He has survived a plane crash that killed a number of fellow passengers—and some intelligence experts suspect the crash was not an accident. His newly formed Janata party is a patched-together misalliance of

anti-Congress factions from both the right and the left. But Desai marches imperturbably ahead, seemingly paying little attention to the baying of the political wolves snapping ever louder at both Janata’s flanks.

Grading Desai’s first year in office is an adjudicator’s nightmare. He gets an A for high moral purpose. Give him B for effectiveness in masterminding an evenhanded foreign policy which keeps both friends and foes sullen but not mutinous. An F for his attempts to contain Indira Gandhi who has stage-managed a spotlight ever focused on her political activities despite a possible jail sentence hanging over her head. She thrives even though an ideological split has chopped her once all-powerful Congress Party in two; a pair of scorpions trapped in a bottle, seemingly intent on stinging each other to death. On managing India’s staggering economy, Desai merits a bare pass, thanks in large measure to two bumper harvests back-to-back. But as one Delhi civil servant says succinctly, “two bad monsoons” would throw the countryside back into famine.

Desai has declared that India’s rural population is his number one concern, a logical decision since more than 500 million of his countrymen eke out a grimy, sweaty living trying to coax life from the largely unyielding and farmed-out countryside. The average weekly per capita income of an Indian farmer is $3.10, much of which is sullenly handed back to rural landlords and moneylenders who together enmesh the agricultural community in the grips of a brutal neo-feudalism. The immediate goal of massive land reform is to provide more jobs for the always underemployed Indian work force. On Janata’s drawing boards are high-flown schemes to create 100 million new Indian jobs by 1988—and that translates, on average, to 20,000 jobs every week, for the next 10 years. That costs money, much more than the $3.5 billion in India’s current foreign exchange reserves could finance on its own. The West’s industrial nations are the prime source, $6.7 billion in aid coming through the World Bank alone.

Faced with the unemployment crisis which unendingly plagues India, it’s ironic that Desai seems intent on driving a number of large, multinational companies out of the country through the suddenly rigid application of legislation which has languished on the statute books for years. The two biggest firms to pull out so far are IBM and Coca-Cola. IBM pioneered computers in India, and there are 10,000 of the electronic brains now blinking in various parts of the country. But by mid-1978, IBM will have closed its Indian doors for good because it refuses to obey a jingoistic Janata order to sell a majority of its shares to Indian stockholders. Coca-Cola has left India because Janata dogmatically insisted that the firm share its soft drink technology with the Indians—specifically to reveal the ingredients which go into the top secret Coke mix. Since the recipe has always been locked in a safe in Atlanta, Georgia, and only a handful of senior Coke technologists have ever learned the precise details, Coke has chosen exile from India over a break in its security. Indians are chugging a locally produced substitute brand—“77”—so named for the year in which the Janata party took power.

To date, another 60 multinational companies have declared that they, too, plan to pull out of India because of the hard-nosed manner in which the shirt-sleeved industry minister, George Fernandes, is ramrodding Indianization of corporate ownership. Fernandes clearly is hypnotized by China’s rural industrial communes.

“Where cottage industry can produce, small industry shall not,” he insists. “What small can produce, medium shall not. What medium can produce, big may not.” In effect, this keeps the big factories out of the marketplace and shelters tiny cottage industries scattered out across the Indian countryside. Every large plant closing costs India jobs and drives up the price of manufactured goods by eliminating mass production efficiency and competition.

In the field of foreign affairs, Desai has managed to keep both his Soviet armorers and his free-world colleagues happy with developments in Delhi, loosening India’s ties to Moscow just a bit and using President Jimmy Carter’s visit to Delhi in January as an opportunity to re-balance the United States’ 1971 “tilt” toward Pakistan. When Janata swept into power last March, a worried Andrei Gromyko was almost the first foreign dignitary to fly frantically in to Delhi, anxious that Moscow’s major client on the subcontinent should not defect. Desai repaid the Russian visit in the fall and supplies of Soviet replacement parts for India’s tank forces and its military jet fleet have continued uninterrupted.

The widely publicized diplomatic gaffe during Carter’s visit, when the President’s references to a “cold and blunt letter” to Desai on atomic fuel were picked up by a live mike, have had no apparent adverse influence on Indian-American relations. Desai has emerged from this snub much larger in Indian eyes, a leader who can stand up to Washington’s pressure—and rudeness—and still obtain the Americansupplied enriched uranium and heavy water needed for the continuation of Indian atomic research and energy production. There beats a kind of perverse pride in the Indian breast that while it is still very much a backward, agricultural nation of selfprofessed pacifists, it ranks among the five countries of the world to have successfully exploded a nuclear weapon.

Negotiating his way through the intricate political shoals of nuclear nonproliferation is one thing: turning Indians into a race of teetotalers is another—yet Desai and Janata seem determined to bring total prohibition to India within four years. It could be his singularly most unpopular attempted reform, yet the stubborn moralist drives ahead. “There is no halfway house in this matter,” he told followers not long ago. “It is not a matter of revenue but of happiness of people which is in danger as a result of liquor.” Of all the strawmen at which to lunge, Desai seems to be tilting at one of the least important imaginable. Many of the Indian states are already dry. Even where liquor is legal, it is only available to the public on about 200 days a year with religious and secular holidays closing down the outlets IVi days a week on average. Indian beer consumption totals a miniscule one tenth of a litre per person per year.

But for Desai, it’s a renewal of an old crusade. When he was chief minister for Bombay a quarter century ago, he introduced total prohibition, with predictable AÍ Capone results. Bootleg stills bubbled out millions of gallons of lethal bathtub gin which blinded, deafened or paralyzed its drinkers. Rival gangs shot it out on the streets for control of the speakeasies. The police were almost completely corrupted by rumrunner money. What flopped totally in Bombay, Desai now insists on implementing on a national scale. “I do not think prohibition requires long argument. It only requires will,” he preaches. So no new wine shop licenses are being granted and when the existing permits lapse, they will not be renewed.

Desai has been criticized for his tunnel vision on the subject of prohibition from every side. Editor Kushwant Singh snipes: “High living is not so dangerous as poor thinking.” The prevailing medical point of view is expressed by Dr. R. V. Rajan, former dean of Madras Medical College, who insists: “Total prohibition is not a matter of top national priority, and it will be a toil in futility.” Politicians have warned Desai that Indira fell because of nasbandi—sterilization—and that the Janata might well topple because of nashabandhi—prohibition. His critics gained a powerful weapon when Desai admitted that he has been addicted to a drink himself for the past five or six years. It’s “a glass of my own urine— about six to eight ounces—every morning. It is very good for you, and it is even free.” Jeered a detractor: “He’ll have us all drinking his ‘Moraiji-cola’ next.”

If prohibition isn’t potentially the thorniest thicket for Desai and his whitecapped Janata supporters, then perhaps the indomitable 60-year-old Indira Gandhi is. A year ago, the greying Mrs. Gandhi was a Nixon-like political outcast, repudiated by the electorate, scorned for the excesses of her 21 -month “emergency” dictatorship and reviled for letting her unpopular son, Sanjay, order senior civil servants around like a Caligula in a dhoti. Today she’s on the march once again, drawing large crowds when she speaks, persuading senior Indian civil servants and

top politicians that loyalty to her will be rewarded when she returns to power and making a mockery of court attempts to hold her accountable for crimes committed in the last years of her rule. So far she’s been arrested, released, then investigated by a judicial committee—and the legal infighting has barely begun.

Mrs. Gandhi’s current nemesis is the Shah Commission—a governmental body set up in September to investigate the “excesses” of the emergency. Headed by J. C. Shah, a retired Supreme Court chief justice, it first requested that Mrs. Gandhi appear to testify, and when she ducked the invitation it ordered her to the bar. She promptly refused to take (a) the witness

chair, (b) the oath and (c) any of the proceedings seriously. Her appearances at the ornate Patiala House to date have been hectic, with her either lecturing the commission on her right not to incriminate herself, or remaining mute. Sanjay and most of the family are in the audience. Busloads of supporters usually appear on cue to heckle the commission members and create a mini-riot outside, bringing in the police swinging their lathis.

The benefit to Mrs. Gandhi is that she has remained a national personality very much in the political limelight even though she no longer sits in the Lok Sabha (parliament) and has no direct influence on government. She demonstrated her still considerable muscle only recently when she single-handedly split the 93-year-old Congress Party and took her followers into a new political alignment, brazenly labeled the Indira Congress Party. She promptly consolidated her political presence as her breakaway party swept to power in two big southern states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh in elections at the end of February.

While all this political scuffling has been taking place inside the Congress tent, Desai and Janata have been busily hacking away at the financial guy wires holding the structure up. In a surprise move several weeks ago, the government declared all 10,000, 5,000 and 1,000 rupee notes to be illegal tender after a pre-announced date. The thinking was that Congress had a huge trove of these large denomination notes, the remainder of $80 million illegally contributed by big business.

Holders were forced to turn the notes over to India’s Central Bank, account for their origins, then wait to see if equivalent funds in legal, smaller denomination bills would be returned to them. At the peak of the drive, about 3,000 people a day in Bombay were coming forward with wads of big bills and some rather intricate “explanations.” On the black market which flourished in Bombay during the last days.

of the demonetization drive, 1,000 rupee notes were going for 250 rupees, no questions asked. But there’s been no indication that the drive hurt the Gandhis or Congress any more than it wounded the many thousands of entrepreneurs in India who have long made untaxed profits out of the so-called “parallel economy,” the current euphemism for the broad variety of black market transactions in which so many Indians are busily involved.

That Desai and Janata take Indira seriously is convincing indication that the political coalition ruling India today is still fragile, held together not so much by a community of political interests as by fear of the opposition party and its apparently destruction-proof leader. It still has failed to convince increasingly disillusioned voters that it wants change as much as it wants power. Muslim voters chafe under the almost 100% Hinduism of Desai’s cabinet. Janata continues to argue that its lack of progress is due to the problems in dismantling 30 years of Congress rule, but that story is now a little stale.

The Janata party knows it is led by an 82-year-old who, despite the health-giving qualities he attributes to his urine, cannot be a long-range source of dynamic helmsmanship. It realizes that the electorate is increasingly restive as prices soar and the numbing population explosion adds 35,000 new, hungry mouths to the national breadline each day. Its politicians are linked not by any warm affection for Desai nor an enthusiastic belief in all his programs, but rather by a fear of eventual defeat at the polls by a resurgent (Indira) Congress Party which still has 30 years of voter loyalty to draw upon. Also coming •up on the horizon to menace Janata are the Marxists who unexpectedly captured Tripura in a recent election, a second win for the Communists, following victory in West Bengal last summer. The first anniversary of its ascendency to power is not a particularly joyous one for Janata.^