The Culture of Money
by M. J. Akbar
Delhi recognises the colour of money, but it has not yet quite begun to comprehend the culture of money. Delhi does not need any lessons in the colour, culture, nuances, excesses, limitations and even the curiosities of power. Power is the legitimate coinage of Delhi. Money, in contrast, is the illegitimate child of politics.
A successful Mumbaikar is comfortable with money, and has every right to be so, because his dharma is business, and wealth-creation is the proclaimed horizon of any business plan. Perhaps virtue might be an excessive word, but the wealth-creator certainly does not view his obsession as immoral.
The wealth of a politician is more problematic. On the one side there is the arguable case of need. Democracy is an expensive business, and one is using both these descriptive words with care. I have no idea in which world the Election Commission lives, but in the real world the cost to the candidate in an election to Parliament is above a crore of rupees. The more extravagant, or the more nervous, types can easily multiply that figure. Leaders with the safest of constituencies do not have the courage to take a chance and spend within the limits of a law that is totally unreal. Take a very simple fact. A Lok Sabha constituency could have up to 1,500 polling booths. A serious candidate would have at least four workers per booth. He would have to provide at least two meals and tea through the day. There is a huge outlay on transport on D-Day, and a buzzing network of party offices and functionaries to feed and lubricate. The budget for just the personnel management of election day can go up to two million rupees.
At the institutional level, political parties have to maintain large and complex machinery, of which the central office is possibly the least expensive bit. No one has given any thought to the basic paradox of Indian democracy: its institutions have a massive cash flow requirement, without any revenue base. Theoretically, this circle is meant to be squared by membership fees, but that is now a joke. We do not discuss the anomaly because every political party is united by hypocrisy. Everyone knows the practical answer: black money. Everyone knows that it is impossible to admit this sin. Everyone knows that those who give black money have generated it by evading a tax law. They certainly do not expect to be caught and punished for such evasion, which clearly is much larger than the amounts doled out to politician.
This leads us to a further anomaly. The political class is actually being fed out of government revenues, or what would have been government revenues if the taxation system was rigidly and honestly enforced. India’s democracy therefore functions on two parallel wheels: the white economy that keeps the government’s coffers in marginal shape and the black economy that keeps political coffers in excellent shape.
The politician might be the beneficiary of hypocrisy, but he is not the sole perpetrator of it. Hypocrisy is the preferred option of the Indian citizen and the voter, who will not permit the political class to go legitimate. There are at least two reasons, possibly related. One is the forlorn and semi-remembered figure called Mahatma Gandhi, who inflicted piety upon a people who love to take fun to the edge of impiety. (Did Gandhi ever celebrate Holi or Navratri except by singing an extra hymn at four in the morning?) Gandhi raised the bar for the political class to the point where he even tried to deny them sex. It was an amazing imposition, for the dividing line between ascetics and politicians in Indian society has been as wide as the Ganga in monsoon. But there surely was a political dimension to this social anagram, for Gandhi wanted to seal the association between the rulers of new India, or the new rulers of India, with the poor. Even if they did not throw away all their wealth, the post-British ruling class could at least look like the poor by wearing handspun. And so Motilal Nehru was relegated from Savile Row to khaddar. There was surely the hope as well that if the generation of Jawaharlal and Jayaprakash and Rammanohar Lohia could believe in simplicity of need, then they would be less tempted by corruption. The answer to the Congress from the Hindutva movement was equally if not more ascetic. The RSS abhorred wealth as much as Gandhi did. The Left, if anything, was even more abstemious. The only politicians who can claim any level of personal honesty today are the Communists. An important reason for the continuing success of the CPI(M) in Bengal is the financial integrity of its leadership.
Gandhi was strong enough to create new realities, and his code did survive for a while. In the Fifties, they used to measure corruption in thousands of rupees. When Mrs Indira Gandhi was alive, India was stunned when an official was discovered with Rs 72 lakhs in cash. Even if you discount inflation, those figures are a joke by today’s standards. Even the spiders of the Scorpene deal would not deign to touch such a pittance.
As long as the Indian economy grew at a semi-stagnant three per cent — sneeringly described as the "Hindu rate of growth" — corruption was correspondingly low. After all, black money can only be the undeclared percentage of profitability. Yes, there were, and are, Indian businessmen who had the remarkable expertise of creating black money out of losses, but they presided over melting assets. Their greed was unsustainable; you cannot share what you cannot steal. But once the Indian economy began to boom, the disposable cash escalated both vertically and horizontally. There was much more cash to shift; there were more people to do the shifting. The government wisely recognised the need for thousand-rupee notes to keep black money in circulation. You don’t really need thousand-rupee notes for the white economy. Cheques and credit cards work, you know. America does not have thousand-dollar notes — at least not to my admittedly limited knowledge.
The distance between need and greed is invisible to the ordinary eye. Definitions change. Today’s greed becomes tomorrow’s need. An economist might even argue that it is important that needs keep creeping up the social pyramid, or a consumption-fuelled economy could never grow. But Indian politicians were supposed to be in some different moral loop, outside the clutches of consumerism, above venal crimes like alcohol and adultery. It was all a pathetic lie and utter nonsense, of course, barely disguised by increasingly fashionable cotton.
In the last fifteen years if the white economy has been growing by six or seven per cent, then the black political economy has been rising by fifteen per cent, with heavy inflation in election years. Elections used to come periodically, now they take place every year. So the inflationary pressure is consistent if not constant.
Ironically, the take-off point for new levels of political corruption came at about the same time as the take-off through economic reform. Anyone who remembers the suitcases full of cash that landed up in P.V. Narasimha Rao’s prime ministerial bungalow could take that as the launch-pad of the new corruption. (There were clever denials, but the cleverer they were the more insincere they sounded.) The BJP, heir to RSS half-shorts and abstinence, got its share of power in the last fifteen years and immediately proved that the only model of power that works is the Congress model. Pramod Mahajan was an astute, personable, even charming (when circumstances encouraged him to be) and brilliant politician, but his métier was as the Collector for his party, the BJP. No one knows just how much Pramod Mahajan collected over the years. Let us agree that it was not a small amount. Perhaps the most telling part of the tragedy that has consumed two generations of Mahajans is not the fifteen thousan
d rupees paid for five grams of cocaine for a midnight party in Delhi, bought from a junk dealer; nor the champagne or the lifestyle. It is even possibly a positive fact that the new generation of BJP leaders should use a Kashmiri Muslim as a conduit for drugs. That is the sort of thing that happens in VIP Delhi across party lines, for black money is neither saffron nor tricolour. It has only one colour, black. The most telling fact is that Rahul Mahajan lined his coke on five-hundred rupee notes. No wonder India was shining for the Mahajan family.
Pramod Mahajan understood the colour of money. He did not understand the culture of money. The culture of cash has left him dead and his son on a deathbed.