A country of pots and kettles

In the past few weeks, the psyche of the political class has undergone a discernible change; a change for the worse, for sure, lest we get a bit optimistic. More and more politicians, in and out of power, are shedding even the shreds of residual reticence that normally inhibit them. On the contrary, they are ready to flaunt their murky deeds and dealings openly, are unfazed even by grievous accusations, feign innocence despite mounting evidence of their culpability, and in short, carry on with their self-serving shenanigans with increasing impunity. The new, emboldened politico is no longer on the defensive; it is either a nonchalant ‘so what’ or an innocuous ‘is it so?’ Sample these:

‘My party cadre gave me money and asked me to buy whatever I wanted …’: Thus spake Mayawati, the UP CM in dismissive tones, while explaining away her zooming personal assets which have crossed the Rs 50 crore mark this year from Rs 12 crore in 2004. The credibility of her explanation apart, what shocks one more is the callous and shameless manner in which she boasts of enriching herself at the expense of the Bahujan Samaj she claims to serve. Cut to TN. A TV interviewer asks former CM J to describe herself. J, with cool, consummate conviction says: ‘I am a straightforward person’. This when the Madras HC had only recently hauled her up for fraudulent electoral declarations when she filed nominations from four constituencies and particularly when the sprawling Kodanadu estate in the Nilgiris somehow failed to materialise in her assets list.

And while on Kodanadu, not a day passes without the rational CM ‘exposing’ J and her contradictory statements, even while he and his entire dravidian parivar are visibly busy, not solving people’s problems, but buying up TV rights of films for the yet-to-born Kalaingar TV, the first family’s media venture. We are not yet talking of the Kodanadu-style property purchases by members of the State’s ruling elite! Again, victory in the Madurai by-poll is deemed by the doting father as a vindication of the lamb-like instincts of his do-no-evil son, Azhagiri. The lamb of a son himself tells a Tamil magazine in saintly tones that he abhors violence, has never resorted to it in his lifetime and will never do too! Enter, Azhagiri, the torch-bearer of ahimsa!

An Italian Q scoots with the loot, yet the person who introduced him to the nation feels no moral or legal compulsion to answer a single query about her friend and compatriot! In fact, it’s possible that the nation may end up paying damages to a sanctimonious Q and hope there would not be any kickback on that too to someone here. The President-to-be is facing a barrage of criminal charges, white and blue collar, yet all that a confused nation gets as reply is a sweeping denial; no rebuttal of the specific charges. Neither the Leftist comrades, the self-proclaimed paragons of probity in public life nor the ‘squeaky clean’ PM have any qualms in unapologetically supporting such a person. The BJP which proposed a lofty suggestion that Presidential candidates too should submit assets list has not thought it fit to first ask Shekawat to do so. The roster of such blatant public postures is endless.

The reasons for politicos preferring to brazen it out rather than getting cowed down are many. First, the power stakes are so high that the risks are worth it. Second, the judicial track-record has convinced them that the law would never catch up with them. Third, all of them have warmed up to the basic rule of the game: the answer to an allegation is a counter allegation! So, after sparring for some time, they spare one another. Fourth, they can bet on a short public memory and a shorter media attention span. But, finally the clinching factor is their firm belief that an apathetic and disillusioned public has no choice but to forgive and forget!

From the public perspective, besides apathy one other factor works: guilt. In a tainted polity and a soiled society, every citizen is guilty, if not of big crimes, at least of some infraction of law. Politicos may have skeletons to conceal, but almost every individual has a bone to hide. Consider these: You visit your sister in US; she gives you $1000. She then pays a return visit and you give her Rs 41000. You have just concluded a hawala transaction! You default on two instalments and the banker comes calling. You sell an asset, the banker waives penal interest and you settle. That could be called a bank fraud! Every property deal involving ordinary citizens makes a contribution to the black economy. Can we count the number of times we have paid our way out of a tricky situation, the number of things we have got out of turn and the number of occasions we have dropped names? From crossing yellow lines to jumping signals to jaywalking to getting film tickets in black to what not, each one of us build a past. Thanks to a corrupt system and our own genetic allergy to rules, ours has become a nation of violaters, lawless to the last person! Indeed, cutting corners is a national craft. Counter charges, therefore, can silence not just political opponents but even the common citizens.

With such baggage, a citizen naturally feels he has no moral right to pull up a politico beyond a point. Also, how can common folk risk a politico’s wrath? Sustained public outcry therefore becomes a far cry and public indignation often dies at the altar of personal guilt. There is instead a widespread acceptance of the unseemly ways of public personalities, which is suicidal. Persons in public life, since they deal with public issues and public money have a greater responsibility. If they err the magnitude of damage and impact on society is greater than when a common man infringes a rule. The latter poisons a pot, but the former can poison an entire pond that a community drinks from. Public persons, who hold or have held power, have to be judged by stiffer standards; Caesar’s wife should merit a higher scrutiny than Caesar’s subjects. Ideally, the citizen should be ready to pay for his mistakes and make the politco too pay for his. That would make good fiscal sense, too.

It is a travesty that while politicos are making bold despite monumental crimes, the small fry are reeling in guilt. So, rise we must against such public improprieties, unmindful of our own ‘misdeeds’. This may not prevent Maya from touching the Rs100 cr mark. But it may force her to be a bit more discreet in parading her properties!

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Jawahar T R