“Multi-faceted” is a word that is loosely uttered in obituaries when somebody of significance dies. But the former deputy chief minister, M.P. Prakash, who passed away today after a battle with cancer, was truly a multi-faceted one. Politician, yes, but also a man of letters: author, theatre personality, and social activist.
Prakash, a minister in the non-Congress state government of Karnataka, invited me to breakfast one Sunday morning. The minister’s house [in Bangalore] was near the hotel, and Deviah came and walked there with me.
Prakash wasn’t among the top crowd-pullers. He had a more sedate reputation as an educated and competent minister, a shrewd and serious politician, yet capable of detachment: someone a little out of the ordinary in state politics.
Prakash, true to his character, didn’t keep us waiting.
Almost as soon as he had been told we had arrived, and before I could pick up one of the papers, he came in from an inner room to greet us, a small, brisk, confident, humorous-looking man in his forties; and he immediately led us to the room adjoining, a dining-room – this part of the house now quite private and personal, quite different in its atmosphere even from the sitting room – where a big table was laid for a most serious kind of Indian breakfast.
And almost as soon as we had sat down at the table, Mrs Prakash appeared, in a fresh blue saree, and began serving us: the ritualised duty of the conservative Hindu wife, personally to serve food to her husband: a duty, but also now, considering what her husband was, a high privilege.
How many of the people waiting outside would have envied her that familiarity with the minister, that attending on him; to how many would she have appeared blessed….
We got up from the breakfast table to go to the State Guest House. Prakash had thought he would have more privacy there, and not be troubled by suppliants.
We went to the main [Kumara Krupa] guest house. It was a big stone building in the centre of the tawny grounds. When we were settled in the wide verandah on the upper floor, I asked Prakash about political power in India.
How did people come by it?
What were a man’s qualifications for power?
Caste, he said, was the first thing of importance. A man looking for office or a political career would have to be of a suitable caste. That meant belonging to the dominant caste of the area. He would also, of course, have to be someone who could get the support of his caste; that meant he would have to be of some standing in the community, well connected and well known.
And since it seldom happened that the votes of a single caste could win a man an election, a candidate needed a political party; he needed that to get the votes of the other castes. So the whole parliamentary business of political parties and elections made sense in India.
It encouraged co-operation and compromise; the very multiplicity of Indian castes and communities made for some kind of balance.
Power achieved here, Prakash said, was very great, in the surroundings of India life, the surroundings of struggle and making do. And the fall, the loss of power, was equally great, and could be very hard to bear.
Prakash said, “When the average politician falls he will have nowhere to go, and no cushion. He may be an advocate in a country area, or a son of a peasant or landlord, or son or brother of a petty merchant; but not a man with a lot of money. And many may not come from a movement.’
‘Movement would be the independence movement, or the movement against Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, or the peasant movement here in this state, or the labour movement, or any people’s movement. When you don’t come from such a movement, and you have nothing to fall back upon when you lose power, you are in a hurry to make money.
‘The power gives so much of comfort, perks, and status – a bungalow, all fully furnished, all personal attendants and secretarial staff. A chauffeur-driven car, and facilities to stay in government bungalows and guest houses when you travel out, and air tickets – you can fly around at the expense of the government. But when you come out of power, if you have no means, you may have to go back to the semi-urban area from where you came. There you can hardly afford to have a secretary or servants. You may have one servant, but not the bunch of servants you had as a minister. Or the free telephone calls.’
Prakash appeared to be speaking against these things, but I thought I could detect a certain lingering over the details of privilege. He had been a minister for six years, and now his government, from what I could decipher in the newspapers, was in some trouble.
I said, ‘Servants. You talk a lot about servants. Are servants very important to these men from the country areas?’
Prakash was a lawyer, ironic, bright: he detected my drift.
He said, ‘In the good old days too many servants, for the big landlords, the zamindars, and the feudals, gave a status. Today it is the power. Servants are there to make your life comfortable. If you are a minister, and you travel on an aeroplane, there will be somebody to buy you a ticket. There will always be a block of seats for the government, and these will be kept till the last minute; so there is always a chance that you will get a ticket. And your PA, your personal assistant, will come right up to the airport to see you off’ – Prakash again lingering over the details, savouring the things he still enjoyed – ‘and at the destination somebody will come and receive you. There will be a vehicle at your disposal, and your reservation of accommodation has already been made.
‘But as a man without power’ – and now, as a preacher painting a picture of purgatory, to balance the heaven of success, Prakash began to darken the details of Indian air travel – ‘many a time you will not know where to buy a ticket, where to stand in a queue, how to get your baggage checked. In a western society, which is so very orderly, between a man with privileges and a common man there won’t be a big gap in the physical arrangement of life, arrangement of travel and comforts and stay.
‘Even in western countries it is an innate thing in a man to look to be in power. And it is all the more so in India, because the power means everything here. When an American president leaves the White House, it makes no difference as far as his lifestyle is concerned, and his physical comforts. Many a time in India it wouldn’t be like that, unless you have a will to live in austerity, like the old gods of the Gandhian era.
‘Our new-generation politicians don’t have that spiritual power, and they feel the difference. They try for a while, after they have fallen, to capitalise on their so-called contacts with the authorities. They undertake ertain commissions for people who want things done. But those contacts very soon go away. And the industrialist who courted you drives by in his big car to his rich house in his nice area, and he doesn’t even look at you.
‘Because of industrialisation, and the green revolution in the rural areas, a new class of nouveau-riche persons are emerging, and these people are being exposed for the first time to university education, comfortable urban life, stylish living, and western influences – materialistic comforts. During this transition period, we are slowly cutting from the moral ethos of our grandfathers, and at the same time we don’t have the westerner’s idea of discipline and social justice. At the moment things are chaotic here.’
I would have liked him to talk more personally. But it wasn’t easy. The political crisis in his government, the glimpse of the possibility of the end of things, was encouraging him to put a distance between himself and the delights of power.
It was at the same time bringing out his political combativeness. It was making him moralise in an old-fashioned way (almost as though he had already left office) about Gandhianism, materialism, and the dangers to India of the super computer the people in Delhi were talking about.
At last he said, ‘I wasn’t rich, but I wasn’t poor. My family could live in comfort and with security. This was in Bellary. I have land there, and much of what I needed was produced on my land – millet, rice, tamarind, chilli, vegetables, and fuel. I can go back any time. But after six years in office here I can notice a change in my children. Their formative years have been spent in this opulence and status, and people giving so much concern and attention to them. Now they don’t wish to go back to the village. For me it’s nothing.
‘Bellary is very hot. And many of these relatives and friends of mine feel a little awestruck when they come here. The friends may have a little jealousy, friends from the village, or people who worked along with me in the old days and have seen me walking the streets of a small place. Now they feel I’ve become all important, and there is a jealousy – and this is apart from the ruthlessness of the system, where my own colleagues are pulling down my legs when I am climbing up fast. This is innate in the system, but the jealousy is different.
‘Even my voter, he will be more comfortable to talk to me when I am there, in my abode. But when he comes here and sits on a sofa’ – it was interesting, getting this idea of the world as it appeared to Prakash’s voter, seeing even the drabness of the State Guest transformed – ‘when he sits here, with this big garden, lawn, police people, attendants, it makes him ill at ease, and immediately he feels I am too far away, and that personal equation goes away or changes.’
Prakash said, ‘Our people, because of the long tradition of the rajas and maharajas and feudal lords, they always look with awe and fear on the seat of power, and at the same time they nourish a dislike and hatred towards the seat of power. But there is a dichotomy. They like an accessible, simple, compassionate, benevolent man in the seat of power. But at the same time they have a mental picture of power – of pomp, pageantry, authority and aristocracy,. These things don’t go together many times.
‘In a case like me, they would like to see me as their good old humble country lawyer – as before 1983, when I came to power and became a minister. But they will respect my authority only if I’m surrounded by a group of officers, and if I myself assume postures.
‘On the 16th of February 1983 I took the oath of secrecy and office as a minister at Bangalore. On the same day there was a communal disturbance at Bellary – with a police firing, seven deaths, arson and looting. I immediately that night left for Bellary by car, 200 miles down. And I immediately assumed the authority there, and started directing the District Inspector of Police, the Deputy Commissioner of Bellary, and other officers. And I was able to control the disturbance in a day.
‘As a lawyer, I had appeared before the Deputy Commissioner of Bellary in several cases, where I used to address him as “Your Honour”. But, as a minister, there was a transformation. I started giving him commands. Within a day there was a change in me. And people wouldn’t have liked it, and the situation wouldn’t have been controlled, if I had just been a mofussil lawyer. It’s a very strange society we’ve created. Democracy has made it possible for people like us to have a different role.’