British newspapers have been carrying reports of the sacking of the Conservative MP Boris Johnson as a frontbencher and spokesperson for the arts. Johnson, a married man and father of four children, the editor of The Spectator, was apparently having an affair with Petronella Wyatt, who writes a column for the journal. But Tory party leaders were anxious to point out that he wasn't sacked because he was having an affair, but because he denied it. He misled the Tory leader, Michael Howard, apart from having lied to the media, and that was unpardonable.
They seem to make a virtue of this kind of thing; it's all right to have affairs and a steamy sex life, but it is not all right when you lie about it to your party. If Johnson had told Michael Howard the truth, it follows, nothing would have happened to him. He'd have carried on with his extra-marital romp and been robustly defended by his party. The kind of life you lead is not important; telling your party leader the truth is.
I mention this incident, even though it has nothing to do with us here in India, because we seem to be slowly moving to a similar moral context. It is all right if you have criminal charges against you; you can still become a minister. But to go against the party leadership is a far more dreadful act, and instant punishment follows. Consider what happened to Uma Bharti. No one can say that she does not lead the life of a sanyasin; but she does have her eccentricities, like her daily bath in the Narmada, she had a havan kund built inside the chief minister's official residence, for example, and acted in a manner that was rather unusual. All that was fine for the BJP; her obsession with these activities to the exclusion of the bijli-sadak-pani issue that got her and her party control of Madhya Pradesh did not really bother the BJP leadership so much. It was her open defiance of the party president, L.K. Advani, that got her not just sacked as general secretary but suspended from primary membership of the party.
The truth is that no party can tolerate indiscipline of any kind, be it defiance of the orders of the leadership or the telling of lies or conniving with a coterie to form a separate group within the party. (This last is accepted by some parties if the group has sufficient power in the form of MPs or MLAs ' they merely pretend the group does not exist.) The key is, of course, power. Anything that is seen to weaken the party is the greatest danger, and those responsible for such action have to be summarily expelled, if such expulsion preserves the power base. So criminal activities are really immaterial, as is leading a dissolute sex life.
Amarmani Tripathi was having a torrid affair with a young, aspiring poet, Madhumita Shukla, and got her pregnant a number of times; every time she went through an abortion but on the last occasion she refused and was determined to have the child, possibly to force her lover to do something to make her respectable in society. All this did not matter to Mulayam Singh Yadav; he openly called Amarmani a 'saviour' of Uttar Pradesh. That Madhumita Shukla was murdered and that Amarmani is accused of being involved in her murder is of little consequence to him. What is important is that he is politically important to Mulayam.
This distortion of basic values ' values that political leaders will extol in public meetings and other gatherings with a sanctimoniousness that is astonishing ' purely because of power considerations is not something that escapes the notice of people at large. Political leaders may think they can fool people most of the time; but as we know, no one can fool all the people all the time. Right now there is a minister in Kerala embroiled in a sordid sexual episode, and as long as he is politically needed nothing will be done about it. The day he ceases to be necessary to the party he will be summarily sacked, and probably thrown out of the party as well. But the people in that state are watching, for certain; and in the fullness of time they, too, will act, and it may not do the ruling party much good.
That's the difference between what happens in a country in the West, like the United Kingdom, and here. We do expect our leaders to have, at least publicly, some kind of moral uprightness; that they do not merely results in their becoming objects of contempt. One reason the Left Front has remained in power for so long in West Bengal is because, by and large, they have an image of being clean, of leading the kind of lives most people do; no sexual orgies, no brazen amassing of wealth.
I believe that is again a reason for the swing away from J. Jayalalithaa to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in the state elections before the last one, and for the swing towards her in the last state elections. The elections to the Lok Sabha would indicate a change again in the perception of the people, but not necessarily; people have been known to have different priorities when they vote for the Lok Sabha and for their own state assemblies. Nonetheless, in a very general sense, there is a perception that someone who leads needs to lead a clean life first.
The north can belie this to some extent but not wholly. Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have leaders who contradict this argument, but then these two states need to be regarded as deviant, deserving special attention and criteria with which to assess them. Look at other states in the north; at Rajasthan, and, yes, Madhya Pradesh which was won for the BJP by Uma Bharti in the main, even if the strategies were worked out by those clever men and their laptops, like Pramod Mahajan. Look at Himachal Pradesh; one can always criticize a political leader but Virbhadra Singh is no Laloo Yadav. Look at Punjab when the elections were held, (not at the Punjab of today when the leadership appears determined to commit political hara- kiri). In these states a premium was placed on basic values, because they engendered trust in voters.
Consequently, when these basic values appear to be compromised, a time may well come when it becomes a natural facet of political power, an endemic sepsis in the body politic. Power can then go quite naturally to those who have the means to subvert the democratic system, to those who have arms and can use force to neutralize the rule of law. After all, our democratic system rests on a fundamental moral principle, and all its institutions derive their authority from that. You would think that it would be evident to those who shape the destiny of the country, but it doesn't appear to be. No one has ever said enough is enough, and it looks as if no one ever will.