Vadra's business, Modi's wife: Nothing personal about it

Let there be more public scrutiny of ‘private life’ of our political leaders

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Ajay Singh | April 25, 2014




Mahatma Gandhi once said “my life is my message”. This formulation implied that there must not be duplicity in public and private life. A public life should be transparent and crystal clear, not opaque. In following this principle Gandhi was prepared to face all the controversy over his brahmacharya experiment. He never ducked criticism, faced it squarely and explained his position. He in fact encouraged criticism and asked his colleagues to leave him if they did not have faith in him. Unfortunately, Gandhi has been branded as a saint by cleverly politicians to prevent public scrutiny of their own lives.

When it comes to secrecy, Indian politicians stand second only to the worst dictators of the world. Are you aware of the fact that the stories about liaison between India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Lady Mountbatten is a secret revealed only by foreign sources? Scholars are denied access to primary sources when it comes to delving into the lives of the Nehru-Gandhi clan. Even an inquiry conducted by the army into the 1962 Sino-Indian war is a closely guarded secret which is not accessible even to those in the top echelons of the government, let alone scholars.

Perhaps this conspiracy of silence among India’s ruling elite seems to have eased a bit in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Sonia Gandhi's son-in-law Robert Vadra is a favourite whipping boy of the BJP while Jashodabehn, the long-lost wife of Narendra Modi, has discovered many sympathisers in the Congress.

Should we not talk about Vadra because he happens to be the son-in-law of the first family? Or should we not talk about Jashodabehn simply because her marriage with Modi is a private affair? These questions can be better understood if we can explain what exactly defines public life and private life.

Public life is a persona that one puts across while interacting with outsiders in a formal setting. Of course, one is entitled to have complete privacy in the bedroom unless one gets into domain that is illegal. There are rare instances in Indian politics when this kind of privacy was breached. If one jogs the memory lane, there was a scandal over lurid pictures of intimate relations between Jagjivan Ram's son Suresh Ram and a lady called Sushma in the mid 1980s.

Surya, a magazine then owned and edited by Sanjay Gandhi's wife Maneka, had splashed those photographs much to the chagrin of the political class. Those photographs were used not to expose any wrongdoing but to embarrass Jagjivan Ram who had deserted Mrs Indira Gandhi to join the Janata Party. “That was an outright criminal act,” said KC Tyagi, who happened to play a key role in that sting operation, when I once asked him about it. Tyagi, now a JD(U) Rajya Sabha MP, has evolved into a mature politician over the years and would have second thoughts about his own acts in the past.

Obviously, the Suresh-Sushma episode was an aberration and never found acceptance in Indian politics. In fact, historically and traditionally the Indian political class has insulated itself from critical scrutiny on the pretext of respecting privacy. This concept, rooted in a feudalist past, persuades masses to believe that the king is entitled to certain indiscretions. But in democracy such indiscretions must not be condoned if they affect governance and people at large.

In Vadra's case, the issue pertains to not his business genius that enabled him to earn hundreds of crores of rupees in less than a decade after investing merely Rs one lakh. It is about the clout he wielded in influencing the decisions of Congress chief ministers to curry favour with certain real estate developers. In such a setting is this not a valid question: Can a Vadra devoid of his status as Sonia Gandhi's son in law achieve such a feat? We all know the answer but pretend otherwise by burying ours heads in the sand on the pretext of privacy. It takes a foreign publication to write an expose on Vadra's indiscretions and business interests.

Similarly, Modi is not an ordinary citizen whose private life is beyond critical scrutiny. There are all the reasons for his political opponents to ask uncomfortable queries about his changing marital status. In his earlier affidavits, he was not shown as married but the status changed in his 2014 affidavits. There is bound to be curiosity about the issue which certainly does not transgress the legal boundary. Nevertheless, there is nothing wrong if his marital status is put to critical scrutiny.

What is particularly disturbing is the fact that politicians in India are rarely confronted with uncomfortable personal questions that often impinge on their public functioning. For instance, ND Tiwari’s status as the father of an illegitimate son was a much talked about topic in Lucknow circles but never discussed in public discourse till it blew on his face in the form of litigation. Tiwari has been forced to accept the young man as his son.

Mulayam Singh Yadav's second marriage was revealed to the world through a supreme court affidavit in a corruption case. The marriage was kept a secret for decades till he chose to reveal it at his own convenience. Since the issue does not involve any coercion or criminality, the issue never came up in the political discourse. The same was the case with Atal Bihari Vajpayee who never married but adopted a family. Vajpayee was so transparent about his relationship with that family that it never went beyond the level of curiosity.

In fact, much of this restraint comes from self-imposed codes enforced by the ruling elite. Can you imagine a similar code restraining tabloids in Britain to stop writing about the royal family? The royal family's private life often goes for a toss in the hands of paparazzi. This is not a welcome situation but the British never grudge it. In the US, president Clinton had to admit about his liaison with a White House intern and nearly faced impeachment.

In western and liberal societies, private life is never used as a cover to hide indiscretions of those who claim to be public figures. There are umpteen instances in these societies that private lives of the high and mighty not conforming to public morality prove to be their undoing.

In the Indian subcontinent, there are examples that inadequate scrutiny of private lives of certain individuals had disastrous consequences. Perhaps the destiny of the subcontinent would have been different if MA Jinnah's private life was analysed thread bare in time. Jinnah's fondness for ham (pork) in his morning breakfast was revealed in a book by his junior colleague and law minister in Nehru's cabinet MC Chagla. This one piece of information would have exposed Jinnah's hypocrisy on Islam and certainly affected the course of history. However, the book was published well after the partition and was immediately banned by the Pakistan government.

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