Ms Gandhi is the president of a political party and not the arbiter of sexual morality for its members
Ms Sonia Gandhi has at last proved herself a true Indian. The Hindu right and other outraged nationalists need worry no more about her assimilation into the Indian way of life. She has shown the nation — or at least her party — that she is a very moral person. She has righteously expelled a Congress municipal councillor in Delhi for “being involved in an amoral affair” which has an alleged link to a murder. There have been dissenting murmurs in the party regarding this judgment, but such prominent members as Mr Jaipal Reddy and Mr Kamal Nath, together with the chief minister of Delhi, seem to thoroughly share in her moral revulsion. Ms Gandhi has cloaked her knee-jerk puritanism in quasi-legal language. She has warned Congress leaders of possible disciplinary action on grounds of “moral turpitude”.
In law, moral turpitude is one of those phrases which could mean just about anything vile, base or depraved. It is a ragbag of sins some of which would have fascinated Dorian Gray, but most of which would have bored him to extinction. Predictably, moral turpitude is an important concept in American immigration law. Used to such unexceptionable immigrants as the pilgrim fathers alighting from the Mayflower, American law could stop at the border any foreign person who has a conviction for a “crime of moral turpitude”. Drug trafficking, prostitution and “commercialized vice” are some of the other inadmissible offences in this law. Here too moral turpitude is an amorphous idea, including a huge list of offences from murder, forgery and bribery, through adultery, sodomy and incest, to bribing, counterfeiting, perjury and harbouring a fugitive. In most cases then, the invoking of moral turpitude comes out of an unsavoury combination of vagueness and rigour. Moral revulsion in all its punitive zeal usually abhors unmentionable specifications. The Victorians used the phrase to avoid talking about Oscar Wilde. The University of Calcutta cites it as one of the reasons for the termination of service.
In India, there is an abiding Victorianism in the use of the term. In its quasi-legal applications, it almost always invokes sexual prudery. Or, to put it in another way, of all the forms of moral turpitude robustly evident in Indian society and its sacrosanct institutions, what is perceived as a sexual offence is the only crime that hardly ever goes unpunished under this rubric. This is why Ms Gandhi has proved herself a good Indian. As moral dominatrix, she has given to the status and functions of a political party a unique distinction. In her hands, it has become the arbiter of sexual morality for all its members, irrespective of their position in its hierarchy. Moral turpitude is more a colonial than an epic or classical concept in Indian society. The Krishna of the Mahabharata, or of the Gita Govinda, would find the idea either impracticable or hilarious. But the Indian Penal Code and its modern custodians would have no problems with it whatsoever. The Indian politician’s raj dharma — to use the prime minister’s words in Gujarat — would know exactly what to choose between the IPC and the epic. This is why, when called upon to discipline and punish, Ms Gandhi prefers to stick to messy love affairs.