That our politicians represent the apex of crudity and uncivilised behaviour has become axiomatic.
We saw it most recently, and spectacularly, when Bharatiya Janata Party chief Amit Shah stood up for his colleague, the riotously controversial chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath. That was in the wake of scores of children dying of neglect and callousness (and other diseases) in a government hospital in Gorakhpur, the yogi’s home, power base, and constituency.
"In a big country like India, there have been many such incidents in the past," Shah announced in mid-August. "This is not the first time."
(At the same time Shah also defended the chief minister’s bizarre diktat to Uttar Pradesh Police to celebrate Janmashtami, but that’s another story: the birth of Krishna, an otherwise joyful celebration was made wholly political.)
A few days earlier, Prime Minister Narendra Modi led a charge of BJP ministers, spokespersons and trolls, to tear into Hamid Ansari, former vice-president of India, after Ansari expressed concern about the state of unease among minorities in India. While even some liberals have expressed concern over Ansari’s statement being more inappropriate for that office than alarmist, Modi’s sarcastically worded put-down of Ansari in the Rajya Sabha, in a formal farewell message to the vice-president was downright crude for all its sophisticated wordplay.
Without using the word "Muslim" Modi managed to amply suggest that Ansari’s views may have been driven by his long association with West Asia as a diplomat, his subsequent work at the Minority Commission and his association with Aligarh Muslim University and that Ansari would now be free to pursue his core beliefs.
Such behaviour has little to do with party affiliation. It has everything to do with embarrassment and rage when a sanctimonious power and privilege is challenged or even questioned. Call it the locker of hurt egos.
Power makes one crass. Absolute power makes one absolutely crass. In India, it is wrought to artless perfection.
Do you recall Ajit Pawar, the nephew of Nationalist Congress Party president Sharad Pawar? When the younger Pawar was deputy chief minister of Maharashtra in a coalition government of Congress and NCP, in April 2013 he had made a remarkable comeback on queries about drought in Maharashtra, a persistent problem that was exposed, during this administration, in particular, since irrigation projects were being riddled with corruption and ineptitude. Ajit's comment was in response to a farmer sitting on a hunger strike in Mumbai to demand water for his drought-hit region.
“If there is no water in the dam, how can we release it? Should we urinate into it?” Ajit had remarked. “If there is no water to drink, even urination is not possible.” (There was nothing lost in translation: here it is in Marathi).
Ajit capped it with a comment on power shortage in Maharashtra, observing that more children are being born as, in the dark, their progenitors have little else to do. Even though adept in the genre of entitlement, Raj Thackeray, chief of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, was moved to describe Ajit's comment as a display of arrogance of power.
(The elder Pawar has usually been more circumspect. He remained silent when, in June 2006, as union agriculture minister he reluctantly accompanied the then prime minister of India Manmohan Singh to farmer suicide-hit Vidarbha, where Singh addressed a neatly organised and sanitised gathering of three dozen pre-selected suicide-struck families.
“I am aware of your pain and sorrow,” Singh said to these farming families, across a table stocked with bottled water for VIPs.
I recorded in my book Red Sun how Maharashtra’s chief minister at the time, Vilasrao Deshmukh of Congress, accompanied Singh and Pawar, and would in some months play down farmer suicides during an interview with a major newspaper: “Did you know,” he asked, “that in Mumbai 4,000 people commit suicide annually?”
In my home state of West Bengal, casual brushing away of violence and violent means has for long been a political tradition. Jyoti Basu, the longtime chief minister of West Bengal in the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led coalition, made “emon toh hoyei thake (these things happen) ” his hallmark to explain mob violence, for instance.
One such incident took place in end-April 1982, when seventeen members of the Kolkata-based secretive sect, Ananda Marg, were attacked and burnt after being dragged out of taxis. Several others were badly injured. The incident was attributed by several media organizations to party cadres — mastans — being let loose. “Emon toh hoyei thake,” Basu said later as a lesson of realpolitik.
Mamata Banerjee whom Basu and his party humiliated, demolished the Left Front in 2011. Her ride on power continues unabated, but she is no slouch. As chief minister of West Bengal, the same year Mamata had visited Belpahari, a former hotbed of Maoist activity which is now in Trinamool Congress’s bag. She had transparently taken the stage with Maoist supporters in her bid to destabilise CPM’s long reign of error and terror. A bus conductor-turned-struggling farmer asked her at a political meeting about her development credentials in a long-neglected area vulnerable to poverty, anger and armed protest.
“Maoist!” Mamata raged. At the chief minister’s prompt, West Bengal Police arrested the man.
A couple of years later, a female college student was abducted, gang-raped and killed in Kamduni village, near Barasat, north of Kolkata. Mamata blitzed in, and when she was heckled for her government’s inability to provide security to citizens, save them from goondas and mastans, Mamata lost her temper.
"CPM people!" Mamata raged.
I was a college student in New Delhi when Rajiv Gandhi, just days into becoming the prime minister after the assassination of his mother and former prime minister Indira Gandhi in October 1984, justified the consequential anti-Sikh riots, among the greatest acts of infamy in India with which the BJP till today continues a you-did-it-too battle whenever taunted by Congress officials with post-Godhra riots in Gujarat of 2002, a time during which Modi was the chief minister and Shah was his associate.
"When a big tree falls the earth shakes a bit,” Rajiv announced in public.
I witnessed firsthand what that little shaking of the earth did, a matter of nightmares for years afterwards — and I wasn’t the one whose family was butchered.
It is an unlovely tradition that we do not seem to mind. We elect, even celebrate, politicians when they blame women for India’s increasing incidence of rape and violence against women, as Manohar Lal Khattar, BJP chief minister of Haryana did. And he wasn’t the only one to have distorted or even defended incidents of rape and crimes against women: the grotesque behaviour is party-agnostic.
Abhijit Mukherjee, son of former president Pranab Mukherjee thought little of his “dented and painted” remarks against women protesting against rape, though he, like a few politicians, was compelled to later apologise under immense public pressure.
We forget how Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik once explained starvation deaths in the state being a result of tribal folks’ backward food habits. And, it is not his or his government’s only callous statement justifying or defending government ineptitude, corruption, and outright human rights violations.
I am sure Indians will recall numerous other instances of such blinding exercise of power and denial across India, of public servants not only making servants out of the public that they were elected to serve, but also humiliating the public, their constitutional rights, and the very core of civilisation and democracy while doing so.
Our modern-day politicians frequently and ceaselessly constitute our national shame. Alas, we are still waiting to be shown otherwise.
The author is an award-winning writer of several books, a columnist, and consultant to think-tanks and media. He tweets @chakraview
Updated Date: Aug 21, 2017 16:30 PM