R.C. Cooper was a great admirer of the emerging economies of Southeast Asia.
1969 was a year of dangerous living for Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
On Saturday, 14 July 1969, without informing the Parliament or the federal planning commission, Indira (52 then) nationalised 14 private banks with the help of a special Presidential decree. Three days prior, she had dismissed Morarji Desai, her finance minister, a Congress party veteran, who had vehemently opposed the idea of bank nationalisation — thereby taking the finance portfolio herself. Indira’s justification for nationalisation of banks was that the masses would be better positioned to access bank financing, particularly the distressed agrarian sector.
As the news broke over India’s state-owned All India Radio, one man — Dr. R.C. Cooper — took more notice than most. Cooper was then general secretary of the Swatantra Party, which in the 1967 general elections had emerged as the single largest opposition party in the Lok Sabha.
The Swatantra Party had been founded by Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, also known as Rajaji, the first Governor General of Independent India. Mahatma Gandhi had famously referred to Rajaji as the ‘keeper of my conscience.’ The party was established to counteract Nehruvian socialism — and during its inception in Mumbai on the 15 August 1959 — a young Cooper was seen sitting on the dais behind Rajaji.
Cooper was an early proponent of free market economies. Trained as a chartered accountant in England, he was the president of the Indian Institute of Chartered Accountants. Cooper had a PhD in economics and served as vice president of the influential Free Enterprise Forum. He was also a trenchant critic of India’s adoption of what he thought was an outdated model of Marxist socialism and Soviet-style centralisation as favoured by Indira Gandhi-led Congress.
Cooper was a great admirer of the emerging economies of Southeast Asia and wrote an article in the Free Enterprise Forum journal, titled, The Twentieth Century Socialism, citing Singapore as an example.
“Surrounded by unfriendly neighbours, she began her independent career under a coalition government of socialists and communists vociferously anti-Capitalist and anti-West. The economic portents could have hardly been gloomier. A mere six years later, she presents an almost incredible picture of economic growth and stability. The same socialist government, but without communist partners, did not take long to realise that quick progress was impossible without private enterprise and foreign capital. Nationalism of means of production cannot and has not achieved the Marxist dream of equality. A question that comes up is, why then, are we not prepared to change our thinking on socialism? The answer to this is provided by the fact that the type of socialism practised by our leaders in this country (India) has helped to create a new vested interests through state capitalism in which the leaders have everything to gain and the public has everything to lose.”
The day after Indira Gandhi nationalised banks, Cooper air dashed to New Delhi to challenge the bank nationalisation ordinance in the Supreme Court. He wanted to ensure that the rights of the shareholders was not usurped — and their shareholding expropriated. Cooper was on the board of directors of the Central Bank of India — one of the banks that was nationalised. He had a shareholding in the bank that gave him the locus stand to petition the Supreme Court.
In a first person account of his experiences during the trial for Himmat Weekly — translated literally as the publication of courage, edited by Rajmohan Gandhi (Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson) — Cooper wrote:
“The main reason why I felt very strongly was the way in which it was done. I thought it was done with unreasonable haste, and in totalitarian manner. I also felt that in great haste, in which it was sought to be done, there was a clear violation of the sanctity of the constitution. My main objective in taking this matter to the Supreme Court was to establish the sanctity of the constitution, the rule of law and the fundamental rights of the individual, particularly the small man and the small shareholder.”
The trial for R.C. Cooper vs. The Union of India (1970) lasted six months. Noted jurist Nani Palkiwala argued Cooper’s case. On 10 February 1970, an 11-judge bench of the Supreme Court gave a 10-1 majority verdict in favour of Cooper. On 14 February, the President of India V.V. Giri was forced to pass another Presidential decree to provide for compensation to shareholders of the 14 banks that were nationalised. Indira Gandhi agreed to pay back in three installments. According to noted author and filmmaker Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, the Indira government had to cough up Rs 87 crores in three equal instalments to the shareholders.
The Swatantra Party ceased to exist in 1974. In 1975, Indira Gandhi imposed the 29-month-long draconian Emergency curtailing civil liberties and fundamental rights. Cooper, on receiving blessings from his family and elders of his Parsi community in Bombay, relocated to Singapore. In the next 38 years, he assimilated with great ease into a multicultural Singapore. He became a Singapore citizen and set up a successful finance/economic infrastructure consultancy.
Cooper wrote two books — Job Sharing in Singapore (1986) and War on Waste (1991). He was well respected by the business community in Singapore. Cooper retained his international affiliations, particularly in the United Kingdom where he was on the board of directors on the Assam Oil Company and Duncan MacNeill (The Assam Tea Company) — both companies then part of the multinational Inchcape Group — a FTSE 250 company.
The last six years of his life were spent living permanently at the Shangri La Hotel in Singapore. He died while on a visit to London in June 2013, age 90.
While Cooper traveled regularly to his birthplace Bombay, he always, light-heartedly, referred himself as a ‘proud white, if not red Singaporean,’ alluding to the colours of the national flag, and his own anti-communist/Marxist sentiments. On the 50th anniversary of bank nationalisation, he also finds a place in the annals of the political history of India as the man who took Indira Gandhi to court, and won.
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Rasheed Kidwai is Visiting Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. He tracks politics and governance in India. Rasheed was formerly associate editor at The Telegraph, Calcutta. He ...Read More +