21 JULY 1979, Page 12

God fails Mr Desai

Ian Jack

Every week a copy of an Indian newspaper called the Swadhin Patrika, the Free Journal, is pushed through my letterbox in Islington. According to the small and somewhat irregular type beside the masthead, it is 'a weekly that Blazes a New Trail in Journalism!' Furthermore it has 'Bold Original Views, Fights Political Prejudices'.

The Swadhin Patrika is not one of your smart Delhi, Bombay or Calcutta publications containing articles.on cricketers and Hindi film stars, and advertisement showing handsome young Indians in sunglasses and artificial-fibre safari suits. No, this particular weekly hails from Kharagpur, a featureless railway junction in West Bengal where the bungalows are of red brick, the roads of red dust and where the sky is permanently clouded by black smoke from the steam locomotives engaged in rearranging the mail and goods trains from Bombay and Madras to Calcutta.

The fact that it survives the vagaries of the Indian and British mails between West Bengal and North London is remarkable. How I come to be on its free mailing list is a mystery. Certainly I passed through Kharagpur earlier this year, so perhaps 1 gave my card — business cards are a useful , token of respectability in India, easier and cooler than wearing a suit — to someone engaged in the paper's publication. Perhaps, for example, to Dr J.K. Dandapat, the chairman of its editorial board, Or to Mrs E. Dandapat, its publisher. Or even to the Dr Dandapat (could he be the same man?) whose Dandapat Surgery and Research Institute — 'most modern equipment surgical and medical in its armamentorium' — is the paper's sole advertiser.

But no matter who — I'm grateful. Far from the sad and often squalid business of national politics in New Delhi, Kharagpur's journal tells it like it is. Its headlines dwell on water shortages, Hindu-Muslim riots, food rationing, floods, corruption and, not least, violence.

Of course there are also moments of light relief. A recent copy contained an interesting account of a trip to Darjeeling by J.C. Chatterjee (`the downward journey was terrific as the bus rolled sometimes to the left and sometimes to the right and I had nothing to catch hold of from falling'.) But I think that the picture of Kharagpur con-' tamed in the columns of its journal could easily be extended to the whole of India. That is, of a country whose climate and economy rule out any,form of reasonable human life for most of its population,• and where the resultant poverty, illiteracy and social fragmentation of the population, and its sheer size, would seem to rule out any reasonable form of government — far less the kind of government wedded to the idea of individual liberty which India has had for the past 32 years, the 19 months of Mrs Gandhi's Emergency apart. 'Would seem to rule out,' but (somehow, so far) does not.

Which brings us to Mr Morarji Desai's political demise. As I write this I like to think of Dr Dandapat in Kharagpur, also hard at work on the definitive view of Indian political events for his leader in the coming week's issue of Swadhin Patrika. For Dr Dandapat's journal, like Ireland's Skibbereen Eagle which once laid into the Tsar, is not afraid to have a go. Even now Dr Dandapat may be locking away a new scalpel in his arm amentorium and pondering on some Bold, Original View.

Dr Dandapat is unlikely to mourn Mr Desai, if only for the reason that Mr Desai had such a hatred for western medicine that he refused vaccinations for himself (and once, 50 years ago in Gujerat, refused to allow a doctor inside his bungalow when his son had smallpox) and thus constituted a distant risk to Dr Dandapat's livelihood. Nor if he turns to the wider public interest will he have much good to say. Strikes, riots, inflation, corruption — all seemed steadily to increase under Mr Desai's premiership. Last month in a nearby town on the Eastern Coalfield, the police and the army were actually killing each other in police riots for This would be sad and wrong. Mr Desai did, after all, spend eighteen months in solitary confinement at the age of 80, locked up like thousands of others without trial or charge; his party did fight the elec tions and win; and his government has restored the basic freedoms to India as he said it would. And if, that apart, his achievements have been few and their consequences mean, then the consequences of Mrs Gandhi's achievements as prime minister weretnuch meaner. Pe,aceful streets ancl„ trains running to time went together with detention without trial and hundreds of thousands of people sterilised against their will. And Mrs Gandhi, despite her frequent appearances in court, is still free. Mrs Gandi (and her son) can thank either Mr Desai's ineptitude or his sense of justice.

Personally, I rather liked him. Touring rural Uttar Pradesh two years ago during his election campaign he suffered me in the back of his Chevrolet for a couple of mornings and talked a lot about God (good), the aggression in human beings caused by meat-eating (bad), and goat's milk (excellent). Mainly, however, it was God. Desai denied ever possessing political ambition. God had led him into politics, into the Chief Minister's job in Bombay, even into his position in the Congress Cabinet. Did he want to be the next Prime Minister? He wanted nothing; God would decide. It may have been humbug, but I think he believed it. Certainly he had a good run with God over the next few months, before his government's unity began to crack and the splits became visible. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.

Dr Dandapat in Kharagpur may well have chosen this text as the headline for this week's leader. For I imagine he has by now reached the Bold, Original Solution to his country's troubles. Other solutions equally bold, though probably not as original, will be flowing from Mr Desai's successors over the next few months. But the chances are that, like Dr Dandapat's, they will remain as words on grey paper.