When nepotism rules the roost

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by M G Radhakrishnan

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Chandy Oommen-T Veena | Photos: Mathrubhumi

The Oxford Dictionary defines the word “nepotism” as giving an unfair advantage to your family if you are in positions of power. It derives from the Latin root word, “Nepos,” meaning nephew or grandson, says the Encyclopedia Britannica. The term had its origins in the history of the Roman Catholic Church when Popes granted positions to their nephews and other relatives. The Borgia family made the most notorious nepotistic history in the 14th and 15th centuries. Pope Callixtus of that family made his two nephews Cardinals. One of them rose as Pope Alexander VI, dutifully carried the family legacy further by appointing his lover’s brother as a cardinal who was called the “petticoat cardinal.” But he also rose to be the pontiff -Pope Paul III- and also a great patron of art and a church reformer. But when it came to the family’s tradition, he, too, was not found wanting. Pope Paul made his two adolescent grandsons cardinals.

Papal nepotism stemmed in the 17th century when Pope Innocent XII issued a bill prohibiting popes from bestowing positions, land, etc, to their relatives. Yet, the trend never disappeared. Pope Francis had to issue an apostolic letter in 2020 prohibiting relatives (even distant ones) of popes from serving on the committees that award the Vatican’s lucrative contracts.

Though the word’s origin can be traced to the Catholic church, nepotism’s widest practice in modern times has been in the political sphere. It cuts across geographies and ideologies to afflict every country, with the difference only in the degree of intensity. Even Sweden, one of the world's least corrupt societies, has companies like Bofors and TeliaSonera, which were linked to the biggest corruption scandals in India and Afghanistan, respectively.

All these thoughts arose in me with two cases that are rocking Kerala now. One is of Chandy Oommen, the son of the late Oommen Chandy, becoming Congress’s automatic choice as a candidate in the by-election in Puthuppally, which returned his father continuously for more than half a century. It is funny that nepotism still makes news in Congress where the Nehru family’s paramountcy has been institutionalized for five generations.

The second case is much more severe. The New Delhi branch of the Income Tax Resettlement Board (IRB) ruled that a private firm paid Rs 1.72 crores to the IT company owned by T. Veena, daughter of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and wife of PWD Minister PA Mohammed Riyas, without any services provided in return. The IRB affidavit suspects that the gratification was due to Veena’s high political connections.

Despite the report's severe nature, Vijayan has not responded, and Riyaz rubbished it as media propaganda. The CPM State Secretariat and its various leaders dismissed the charges as politically motivated. They cited it as another example of the BJP-ruled central government unleashing its agencies on Opposition leaders.

Indeed, the central security agencies cherrypicking the Opposition has been a common practice across the country in the past few years. Halting the hunt all of a sudden, the day they switched their allegiance to BJP has also been in operation with impunity. That the IRB's affidavit, which named prominent leaders of CPI(M), Congress, and Muslim League but not a single one from BJP as the recipients of money from the said private company, also makes it suspect prima facie. The affidavit taking extra care to mention her father's political position as the possible reason for Veena's payment also looks fishy.

Nevertheless, neither Veena nor her father, husband, the CPI(M), or, most of all, the state government can wash their hands off without explaining. Neither can they rubbish them only as politically motivated or abuse the media. Seeing CPM state secretary MV Govindan fleeing from his press conference or party spokespersons struggling to justify their leaders and their families on television debates was pathetic.

Leaders of the United Democratic Front, who find their names in the affidavit, also owe a detailed answer to Kerala, not just dismiss them as routine political donations. Otherwise, the murky incident would only reconfirm the reigning public sentiment against the entire political class as a bunch of bandicoots which would hardly augur well for democracy. All the more so because Cochin Minerals and Rutile Limited (CMRL), the company accused of paying off the entire Kerala political class, was also tainted because of its environmentally disastrous sand mining activities on the fragile coast. The suspicious dealings that surfaced subsequently of Congress legislator Mathew Kuzhalnadan after he led a solitary campaign from the UDF against Veena’s business also need more explanation. Nonetheless, Kuzhalnadan deserves kudos for coming out in the open unlike the CPM leaders to explain his case irrespective of whether it carried conviction or not.

Mahatma Gandhi, Kasturba Gandhi

It would be a joke to compare today’s political class with Mahatma Gandhi. Yet, worth remembering is an incident that shows how Gandhi dealt with what he thought was a corrupt act committed by his wife Kasturba. Sometime in the 1930s, after the daily evening prayer at the Sabarmati Ashram, Gandhi rose to make a speech. All the Ashram inmates were present, including Kasturba sitting in the front row. Bapu started by praising Kasturba, who stood with him through the changes of his life as a tower of strength. But then, he said, that despite her many virtues, Ba had many defects like her longing for earthly possessions, which was against the law of the ashram. Gandhi said that a year ago Ba had kept about Rs 200 for herself by accumulating the small sums many people gave her on different occasions. When he found this out, she expressed an apology. However, it was found that Ba committed this mistake again. She kept with her an amount of Rs 4 given to her by a visitor instead of handing it over to the Ashram manager. Maganlal (Bapu’s nephew and Ashram's manager) came to know about this lapse and asked Ba. She felt humiliated and returned the money immediately, narrated Gandhi.

All those who were at the meeting were stunned into silence and not daring to look at Ba. Sudhir Kakar mentions this incident in his book 'Mira and The Mahatma'; “Many people were crying openly when Bapu finished. Dry-eyed herself, Mira saw Ba dabbing her eyes with the end of her pallu”.

The incident was interpreted in two different ways. One could see in it the incredible truthfulness and the brutal honesty of Mahatma, who didn’t tolerate the slightest lapse even from his wife and children. Or, it could also be viewed as another instance of Gandhi’s puritanic and hegemonic ways against his wife as seen on multiple occasions in their lives.

Yet, it illustrates, without doubt, his refusal to tolerate any deed from anyone, including his dear wife, that he thought was against the principles he stood for.

Most interestingly, as Kakar wrote, Bapu held this corruption in the ashram not so much as a fault of others but a reflection of the hidden wrongs within himself. “I have never claimed perfection for myself. Who knows what aberrations in the realm of my thought have reacted on the environment around me?.... Imperfect as it has always been, full of corruption as it has been discovered to be, this institution is my best creation. I hope to see God through its aid. Revelations put me on guard. They make me search within me, and they humble me, but they do not shake my faith in it” he said in his speech.

We are no Mahatmas to think and act like him, but shouldn't we at least occasionally remember that such a man lived amongst us?
Why do we cite 'Caesar's wife ad nauseam' to stress integrity in public life when we have such a great home-grown example? Why do not we say henceforth that public persons should be above suspicion like Bapu’s wife?

Gandhi's ideal Lord Ram also did something similar when he asked Sita Devi to undergo 'agnipareeksha' to prove her purity and disprove the allegation she faced. Besides the patriarchy involved, this is the price those who carry the trust of the public in them should pay. Uneasy should lie the head that wears the crown.

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