The spectacle would be amusing if it were not so sickening. A great carnival is on in Tagore’s Santiniketan; the purloining of the poet’s Nobel medallion has provided an excellent opportunity for political specimens to congregate and shed pretenders’ tears at the tragedy that has supposedly benumbed the nation. A fair lot of these pretenders had kept totally mum when Indira Gandhi, during her famous Emergency, imposed a ban on many of Tagore’s songs, poems and prose compositions; instead they prostrated themselves before her in frenzied loyalty.
But why waste time on such run-of-the-mill hypocrisy' Let us move to nobler quarters. A gentleman, who in his college days at Lahore was an important member of the All India Students Federation, and later came to be known as a “progressive” Congressman, was minister for information in Indira Gandhi’s government in the early Seventies. He found himself in the Janata Dal in the subsequent couple of decades and was in fact the nation’s prime minister for some months in the anti-BJP United Front bonhomie in the late Nineties. Widely regarded till now as a great secularist and upholder of minority rights, he has recently undergone a change of heart: he has joined Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s bandwagon.
At this moment, he is busy addressing meetings in praise of the Bharatiya Janata Party-National Democratic Alliance regime in New Delhi. Some may call him a turncoat, but he perhaps would describe the transformation as the outcome of a change in perception. It is only an incidental fact that his son is an NDA candidate from a Punjab constituency in the forthcoming elections. The interesting point is not that the BJP has lapped him up. Of course it would. Far more significantly, the gentleman himself has apparently not felt the least embarrassment at the somersault he has turned. But, then, sang-froid is as sang-froid does.
For the BJP too, this ought to have been an occasion for soul-searching. Indira Gandhi, at least for the sake of form, had expressed regrets for some of her Emergency excesses. Her younger son, Sanjay, had little time for such bogus confessional sessions. He is dead, but his wife and son have, with much trumpeting, now joined the BJP, whose leaders were Sanjay’s bête noire. So what' The wife of the late non-lamented Emergency anti-hero was actually a member of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s council of minister for most of the past five years. She too has not been known to have expressed one word of contrition for the ill-doings of the Emergency. The BJP nonetheless has no problem in accepting her. In the magnificent maelstrom of India’s upper-crust politics, principles and ideological positions do not mean a thing.
Even before the junior bahu took the plunge and was welcomed by the anti-Emergency crusaders in their fold, Sanjay’s main hatchet-man during the Emergency days, had been inducted into the Vajpayee government as a minister. He is now the Union minister in charge of cultural affairs. The choice no doubt is impeccable.
The issue of moral principles has become irrelevant. The Indian nobility has always been garrulous in its emphasis on the importance of following the hoary Indian tradition of nyayadharma. Their practice of the precept has however all along been of a tardy genre. The epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, are crammed with narratives in which deceit emerges as a virtue and integrity is sold in the free bazaar at a consideration. That legacy has remained unsullied through historical times. The cant of adherence to truth and righteousness in all circumstances has been matched by the parallel edict of everything being fair in love and war. What is life except a sumtotal of a series of wars and love affairs' There is a risk of putting a strain on one’s longevity if the particular home-truth is uttered in Maharashtra, but one of the high points in Shivaji Maharaj’s chequered career, much applauded in history text-books, was his stabbing in the back — literally so — of the Mughal general, Afzal Khan, at an invitation luncheon.
Cross over to the more modern era. In the first half of the 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi was the undisputed leader of the Indian National Congress and of the freedom movement. He had to be obeyed by one and all; even what were considered to be his fads had to be obeyed — for instance, his insistence that each member of the Congress take a pledge not to imbibe alcoholic drinks. Everybody dutifully lined up to sign the pledge, including the bada and chhota leaders. So what' A pledge is a mere signature on a piece of paper, scribbled to humour the old man. In the remote backrooms of their sumptuous mansions, most major leaders continued to organize round-the-clock drinking sessions. A hilarious story still makes the rounds about Bulabhai Desai, a leading light of the Bombay bar and an important Congress leader, how he smuggled successfully a carton of Old Grandad bottles into his humble hutment in the leaders enclosure at the Haripura Congress session in 1938.
Therein lies the point. Indian politicians — the major-domos amongst them — have grown accustomed to hitting moral principles for a six. The argument they have spun in defence of their conduct is straightforward enough. Politics is the art of survival. In order to survive, one has to effect compromises. These include compromises between belief and practice as much as between professed belief and actual belief.
Mahatma Gandhi’s days are long over. No alternative father-figure is around to intimidate the senior politicians. The electorate is, as ever, a mass of potatoes; therefore there need be no fear from that quarter either. If one says something and does something altogether to the contrary immediately, or says something today and speaks its opposite tomorrow, or does something today and does something altogether different tomorrow, tranquillity is not disturbed. Hence, A and not-A are reconcilable and not exclusive categories, just as parallel lines can be nudged to meet. A secularist in the morning can convert himself or herself into a religious fundamentalist by the twilight hour and vice versa. A Congress minister can travel to the BJP on a Saturday afternoon tempted by the allure of a ticket to stand in the ensuing polls, once the ticket eludes his grasp, he can return to the Congress early Monday morning and confide to the press about the extent of suffocation he felt in the company of BJP stalwarts during the weekend.
In sum, it is possible in plutocratic India to have a conscience and yet have no sense of moral responsibility. And that is altogether in conformity with the nation’s ancient heritage. In post-globalized and post-liberalized India, a basic additional element has crept into the picture. Until a couple of decades ago, while issues of morality, immorality and amorality could be pushed under the carpet, the Indian nobility was still wary of the impropriety bug. It was an aesthetic problem. Nothing wrong in contradicting oneself. In the course of the day’s meanderings, nothing wrong in breaking a pledged principle or the trust of a long-standing friend, but such acts would not look nice, which is why the leaders would desist from certain types of activities. For example, a member of the Union council of ministers, who had taken a pledge to exterminate poverty, would keep his Bentley under wraps in the garage.
Inhibitions of this nature have been blown away from the Indian psyche, first class, by the free market tornado. To the profit-maximizers in the post-global milieu, no act howsoever hideous or heinous, is to be disapproved of as long as it advances, even in the least, the cause of the self. The Indian upper class has finally succeeded in erasing the dividing line between decency and indecency. Which is another way of saying that they have rid themselves of their left-over quantum of shame.