In India, the walls of government offices carry framed photographs of the president and prime minister. In Britain, it’s the Queen. I’d like to suggest an important addition: Caesar’s wife. It doesn’t matter that he had three. Anyone of them will do. For the saying she needs to be above suspicion applies to all of them. And her presence staring down on our officials would be a welcome reminder that fulfilment of the same principle is also expected of them. If anything, even more so in a time of the coronavirus.
In a nutshell, that’s why I’m disturbed by the action taken by the ministry of corporate affairs against the Gymkhana Club in Delhi. More than three years ago, the ministry received a complaint against the club alleging misconduct and mismanagement, particularly in connection with the admission of new members. It was filed by seven club members, including a former president. For almost 1,000 days, the ministry did nothing. Then, shortly after the lockdown was declared, it moved a petition before the National Company Law Tribunal seeking to take over management of the club and replace its general committee with new administrators appointed by the government.
Now, this is not a matter of national priority or even of particular urgency. Yet, the ministry deliberately chose to act during the lockdown when the club is closed and the present management cannot access its records. Was the aim to place the club at a disadvantage and effectively take it over? That’s the suspicion most club members find hard to dispel. And this is why Caesar’s wife comes to mind. Beyond the technical rights and wrongs of the government’s decision is the niggling doubt – for some, in fact, it’s a conviction – the government has deliberately chosen this moment to alter the character of this 107-year-old institution which has become the symbol of values and traditions it does not approve of. And what are they? A liberal lifestyle that enjoys drinking in convivial company, the right to express oneself freely including in criticism of governments, to maintain an arm’s length from all politicians and the right to choose who you want to admit.
None of what I’ve written is to suggest the club has done no wrong. Indeed, there are no institutions in India of which that could be said. Least of all our governments and the officials who staff them. So, how could a club that’s a century-old be faultless? But a just government would not only seek to remedy and rectify but do so in a fair and transparent way. This is where the ministry of corporate affairs has gone horribly wrong. If the aim is to cleanse the club, isn’t that best done by self-cleansing? Rather than seeking to take over its management and appoint new administrators of its choice, shouldn’t the ministry have requested the club itself to change its management by holding fresh elections in which the incumbent members of the general committee are free to contest alongside others who wish to replace them?
The Gymkhana Club is an institution that deserves to be protected and preserved. Its character and culture were not created in a day. They took decades to mould. And they’re widely recognised as special. That’s why so many want to join and are willing to pay a king’s ransom to do so. They come from the armed forces and civil services but also professions like journalism, law, chartered accountancy and business. They’re salaried professionals but the most active members are often pensioners. For them, the club is a sanctuary. An oasis in the sprawling desert that retirement has cast them into. Only an unthinking government could take it away from them.
Of course, the club needs to be corrected and improved. Which institution in India does not? But in government hands, it’s more likely to be ruined. If Calpurnia’s picture could speak, that’s what I’d like to believe she would say.