The breakup of Pakistan in 1971 was just the booster dose Prime Minister Indira Gandhi needed. Arguably, that decisive victory against the Jihadi state consolidated Mrs. Gandhi’s power like nothing else had done. After her unscrupulous split of her own party just two years ago, she was still reeling under widespread public outrage and her position was far from being secure. The military defeat of Pakistan gave her that security. Ever since, the pace at which she gobbled up power both within the Congress and the Government was truly impressive. And frightening.
By 1973, her supremacy was complete, unchallengeable and despotic. Those who were personally loyal to her were awarded with cabinet ministries. The worst dregs of the society sat on positions that would alter the destiny of the world’s largest democracy for the worse. L.N. Mishra, Bansi Lal, Jagannath Mishra, “Munim ji” Umashankar Dixit, Rajni Patel, D.K. Barooah, V.C. Shukla, S.S. Ray, and the protagonist of our essay, a forgotten rotten eminence named D.P. Chattopadhya.
D.P. Chattopadhya started out as a lecturer of Philosophy and eventually became a professor. Years of rigorous academic training in such a specialised and highly abstract field had equipped him with the skills and methodology required to realise his soaring political ambition. Or so he thought.
Described variously as “smooth,” and “silver-tongued,” his initial forays to worm himself into the highest circles of Indira’s Congress were quite hasty due to his frank inexperience in navigating that treacherous swamp. However, he quickly found an inspiration in perhaps the most shameless political wheeler-dealer, the selfsame L.N. Mishra, and quickly trod in his soiled footsteps. Eventually, like Mishra, D.P. Chattopadhya earned the prized title of being a quietly effective political collector.
We now return to the watershed year of 1973. In February, Indira Gandhi dropped a surprise bomb by announcing a major cabinet rejig. L.N. Mishra became Railway Minister, Umashankar Dixit the Home Minister, D.K. Barooah the Petroleum and Chemicals Minister, and D.P. Chattopadhya was in charge of the lucrative Foreign Trade Ministry. This was a surprise appointment and it was based entirely on merit: Chattopadhya had shown “ the potential for collecting funds with philosophic calm.”
Indeed, after his fledgling missteps, Chattopadhya quickly learned that fund-raising for the Congress Party was the surest and fastest way of rising to the topmost echelons. In this, he had the support and guidance of a few IAS officers who had taught him a crucial trick: of being indispensable to sitting ministers by showing them the most “legal” ways of making illegal money. Accordingly, the philosopher Chattopadhya assembled a bunch of bureaucrats known for their academic expertise. Step two: this team made a thorough study of the jute and cotton industry in India. Step three: armed with the findings of this rather impressive study, Chattopadhya’s team summoned the powerful business leaders operating in jute and cotton for a meeting. The outcome was a happy one: agreements would be entered into which were in the “best interests of all concerned.”
The philosopher Chattopadhya was now on the cusp of his ensuing political glory. This entire powerful business lobby was literally in his pocket and he would use it as his calling card. However, this is where his political inexperience kicked in. He made an appointment with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and arrived at her residence at 1, Safdarjung Road, well in time. He was carrying a briefcase in his hand.
As the Mitrokhin Archives and other sordid revelations of the period show, the political avenues of Delhi including the Prime Minister’s own residence were lined with briefcases loaded with hard cash. The philosopher Chattopadhya had only been faithfully following this briefcase culture. And so, he made the “briefcase offer” directly to the Prime Minister herself across the table. It was a surreal scene from a mindless Bollywood film. Indira Gandhi was incensed. She screamed at him but the message at the end was as loud as it was clear: I know nothing about this! Go to Dixit Ji. He’s the treasurer. Later, “Munim ji” Umashankar Dixit gently instructed Chattopadhya on the correct and proper method of doing such things.
The philosopher was suitably enlightened.
From then onwards up to heading the Foreign Trade Ministry, Chattopadhya’s rise was truly meteoric. In January 1977, he was promoted to the Minister of Commerce, Government of India, a position he had achieved by the dint of leaving a trail of epic plunder and unhinged loot of national resources. It was the summit of crony capitalism and he was one of the very few who stood on it. To get an idea of the kind of loot he presided over, we can look at this excerpt from the defunct magazine, Current dated 18 June 1977:
Most of the looting was organized by (the State Trading Corporation and the Minerals and Metals Trading Corporation). STC Chief Parikh is reported to have gobbled over a crore of rupees. He unsuccessfully sought a Congress ticket…His passport was impounded, he is under a cloud of suspicion and the Central Bureau of Investigations is raking up his activities...His contemporary and chief of the MMTC, C.R. Das services have been terminated and he too is facing an inquiry. These two freebooters indulged in unparalleled plunder of the country’s resources at the behest of the Congress rulers. The booty runs into Rs 500 crores and Mohan Dharia [Janata Party’s Commerce Minister] is determined to dig up the wealth hidden in secret accounts inside the country and abroad...
The mid-76 visit to Paris of Prof. D.P. Chattopadhya, his Special Assistant N.K. Singh and MMTC Chairman G.R. Das is likely to be reviewed in the light of information that the real purpose of the visit was the safe-keeping of monies collected on such commissions… [Emphasis added]
500 Crore rupees is roughly around 12,000 crores in today’s parlance. Suresh Kalmadi’s epic CWG scam costed the exchequer ₹ 70,000 crores. But to put D.P. Chattopadhya-enabled loot in perspective, the average monthly salary of a government-aided high schoolteacher in 1977 was around ₹ 90-100.
Quite evidently, when the Emergency was imposed, the philosopher Chattopadhya was quick to ingratiate himself with the new power centre, Sanjay Gandhi. Sometime in September 1975, Priyaranjan Das Munshi, then the president of the Youth Congress had earned Sanjay Gandhi’s ire and Munshi’s frantic appeals for forgiveness found no audience. It was the selfsame D.P. Chattopadhya who was handpicked by the oily R.K. Dhawan to deliver the ultimatum to Munshi: resign now. A sitting cabinet minister who took orders from a behind-the-scenes political manipulator.
A 1977 excerpt titled The Curtain best describes the likes of D.P. Chattopadhya:
…these were small men. Not one of them had the qualities even of a mediocre politician. Bansi Lal, V.C Shukla, Barooah, Om Mehta, Yunus, S.S. Ray, D.P. Chattopadhya, Pranab Mukherjee, not to speak of men like Yashpal and Dhawan, were all back-room boys whom the two used for their unbridled pursuit of power, devoid of all values. These were the men who rose to the country’s top positions and debased them all. [Emphasis added]
Needless, like every epic Congress scamster, D.P. Chattopadhya was never punished. On the contrary, till the very end, he was hailed as a great philosopher and scholar. Perhaps he was one of the rarest Emergency eminences who take care to ensure that mud would not stick on him. History however, is unforgiving.
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