If the prime minister received a note amidst serious proceedings in parliament signed ‘PM’, the sender, writing without ‘authority’, could only be a friend, and one with a sense of humour.
That was Piloo Mody, a leading light of India’s opposition through the 1960s-early 1980s.
He would fully utilize his initials to cajole Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, an old friend. She laughed when he said: “I am the permanent PM; you are only a temporary PM.”
Their friendship, despite deep political differences, was, however, permanent.
Recalling Mody the man and the parliament of his times is necessary when times and much else have radically changed – much of them for worse.
Parliament then was accused of being a debating society of India’s political elite. Late Nath Pai and Hiren Mukherjee, known for oratory in English, co-existed with captivating Hindi speakers like Prakash Vir Shastri, Chandra Shekhar and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Nehru had applauded Vajpayee on the latter’s maiden speech in the Lok Sabha. Despite political differences, Vajpayee remained a Nehru admirer and despite being imprisoned, grudgingly approved some of Indira’s actions.
In contrast to that era of debates and bonhomie, parliament and state legislatures have swung to the other extreme of allowing no debate, no dissent and of an undeclared policy of disturbing proceedings.
The era of oratory is gone. Also gone is acceptance of differing views. Dissent is muffled by slogans and barricading, by shouting down other opinions and worse, even questioning the opponent’s integrity.
Mody was different on many scores. A member of the microscopic Parsi community, he joined politics, he once told me in an interview, “because Babu Jagjivan Ram’s views on art are more respected that those of Picasso.”
Ram was then a powerful politician and a minister. Mody came from a different world, a renowned architect whose designs include New Delhi’s iconic Oberoi Hotel.
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who went on to become Pakistan’s Prime Minister in the 1970s, was one of his closest friends. It was a friendship that transcended geographical barriers and political/religious prejudices.
Mody’s book “Zulfie My Friend” (1973) remains a candid account of Bhutto before he turned a politician. In the prevailing ethos, perhaps, Mody would have been the most hounded lawmaker.
Indira used Mody’s proximity to assess Bhutto as he came to Simla (now Shimla) for talks post the 1971 India-Pakistan conflict. Mody evocatively narrates a rare moment in that book, of Indira and Jagjivan Ram, then Defence Minister, peering over the treaty draft that Bhutto had offered, conferring with P N Haksar and other advisers.
It is another matter that despite such a formidable side that was basking in military victory, Bhutto outsmarted the Indians in diplomacy and promising peace and friendship, extracted territorial and political gains for Pakistan.
If Mody shared warm friendship with Indira, he dissented with her father, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s socialist policies. The business class in general and those from the Parsi community were particularly upset at the way Nehru had nationalized Air India that was originally Tata Airways.
Mody shared his birthday, November 14, with Nehru. Privately, he resented this coincidence, chiding his mother, Lady Mody, if she could not have delayed his birth by a day.
Mody’s opposition to Nehru was ideological. Of liberal ideas, he was one of the founders of Swatantra Party, India’s only party that officially, formally (unlike many others) pitched for free enterprise. It merged into Lok Dal and then Janata Party in 1977, and was not heard of thereafter.
Looking back, the much-maligned party of that era was way ahead of its time. India’s economic reforms, begun in 1991 have, despite striving to retain “a human face” as P V Narasimha Rao who launched them would reassuringly say, have willy-nilly absorbed the Swatantra ideology.
Mody’s parliamentary career had witnessed another friendly tumult. He won from Godhra in Gujarat twice thanks to his friendship with Jaideepsinh, the erstwhile Maharajah of Devgadh-Baria. In 1980, Indira fielded Jaideepsinh as the Congress candidate and Mody was defeated. Jaideepsinh won, but Mody had the support of Jaideepsinh’s mother who treated him as her second son. Their friendship survived electoral clashes and worse.
The Piloo-Indira friendship, too, survived the test of his being imprisoned for 19 months when the latter’s government imposed the Emergency. Raised as an aristocrat, this was perhaps the only time he underwent hardship. He took it sportingly. A story has it that the hugely overweight Mody had a fall in the jail and bled. He gamely asked his co-prisoners to witness the flow of “some blue blood.”
Mody’s parliamentary career blossomed again, and friendly jibes at Indira Gandhi and her government continued in the Rajya Sabha. He was irrepressible and irreverent. His deft turn of phrase in English had his opponents squirming in their seats.
He called a hefty lady member ‘Amazon’, and blind Indira supporters in the House ‘limpets.’ He called members of the treasury benches “purchasable commodities.” On each of these occasions that I witnessed from the Press Gallery, his ‘victims’ would take a while to grasp the meaning and import of his remarks and then, all hell would break loose. Mody, his huge body shaking, would be laughing away.
Vijay Sanghvi, a veteran of the Press Gallery of that era, recalls how Mody, irritated at frequent interruptions, told Congress member J K Jain “stop barking.” “Sir, he is calling me a dog,” Jain protested. The chair expunged Mody’s remark. “OK, stop braying,” Mody told Jain. There were no protests and the word ‘braying’ that nobody apparently understood, remains on parliament’s record.
On January 29, at a meeting marking Mody’s 35th death anniversary, Jain himself recalled that episode, and those times.
I cannot help recalling Mody as a newspaper editor of weekly “March of the Nation”. It sold a pittance against the populist, left-leaning ‘Blitz’ of R K Karanjia. The two Parsis were political adversaries. When Karanjia went to jail, Mody, who always called the former “buster boy,” came out with a limerick in his paper: “Old buster boy is in clink/Come on boys let’s have a drink.”
Mody didn’t have to create humour – it came naturally to him. He would not spare himself and at times be part of it. Ridiculing anti-American sentiments, when his friend Indira and her partymen would blame everything on the CIA, he arrived in parliament one day wearing a badge inscribing ‘CIA’ and a placard declaring: “I am a CIA agent.”
Amidst his biting humour, Mody took his politics seriously. He told his party chief, Chaudhary Charan Singh, to “build toilets in your village,” before extolling the virtues of village life. And when Chaudhary briefly became the prime minister, he told him that “your world starts and ends at Agra and Jhansi. You do not know the rest of India.”
He was taking on not just the government, but the political ethos of the day. Angry protests from the treasury benches could not hide the palpable embarrassment the government suffered.
After long years of witnessing parliament at work, I am of the firm opinion that while brains and intelligence and the parliamentary craft may evenly belong to the government of the day and the opposition, the humour department has virtually been the opposition monopoly. This is healthy for a democracy.
All this was when Parliament, its members and members of the Press Gallery were a huge extended family. When poetry was recited; speeches could be impassioned without being personal. Humour was not taken personally or as “an insult to the nation.” There was little toxicity and no trolling on the social media combined with death threats.
Today, one can only hark back at that era.