This past week we have witnessed an ersatz public debate, if that’s the right phrase to use since it preoccupied the chattering classes and not the masses, on whether the media should intrude into the personal lives of public figures, especially high profile politicians, in its quest of titillating stories thinly disguised as exposés meant to highlight the moral decrepitude and ethical bankruptcy of our times. The debate, such as it has been, was triggered by a video, surreptitiously or unwittingly recorded, whose contents can neither be written about nor broadcast without inviting charges of contempt of court. What can be said without breaching the law is that the video has sufficiently embarrassed Congress MP Abhishek Manu Singhvi to resign from his post as party spokesman and chairman of the parliamentary committee on law and justice which has drafted the Lok Pal Bill meant to restore integrity in public life.
We need not dwell upon the odious contents of the ‘alleged’ CD containing the video, copies of which were stealthily distributed among journalists and politicians even while a judge was issuing restraining orders. It is remarkable that the media, including those sections which are known to play fast and loose with the fundamental ethics of journalism to either grab eyeballs or push their agenda, refrained from writing about or broadcasting the revolting contents of the ‘alleged’ CD.
It would be erroneous to compare the media’s restraint with the extraordinary care taken by the British Press in the 1920s while reporting court proceedings in the case involving ‘Mr A’. The lurid details, for instance about a monogrammed razor, were toned down even by the tabloids lest ‘Mr A’ felt discomfited. It was only much later that the identity of the mysterious ‘Mr A’ was revealed: He was Prince Hari Singh who went on to become the last Maharajah of Jammu & Kashmir. What worked in favour of the modern day ‘Mr A’ were the three ‘P’s that dominate life in the nation’s capital city: Paisa, Power and Politics. The uncharitable would say it was a cover-up prompted by the invidious relationship between the media and politicians which makes one dependent on the other for survival. A more charitable view would be friends don’t do in friends, but that would beg the question: Why should journalists and politicians be bound in enthralling friendship?
All that, however, is fodder for a sterile debate that can continue till the cows come home. A diplomat once told me with wide-eyed wonderment: “It’s amazing! Half of Delhi sleeps with the other half.” His comment, not to be taken literally (although the ‘alleged’ CD would suggest otherwise), had a ring of touching innocence, for that’s the way it has been ever since a succession of rulers chose Delhi as the seat of their imperial power. Lutyens was needlessly obsessed with the incline of Raisina Hill since aesthetics have nothing to do with the inclination of the residents of the city he built.
Since this reality cannot be wished away, much as we may want to, it would be far more useful to concern ourselves with three issues that have been pushed to the fore by the ‘alleged’ CD and which are of public interest. This is not the first time that we are confronted with these issues that pose a debilitating dilemma, but perhaps the time has come to deal with them rather than put them aside for another day. First, are high offices, for instance those held by judges, up for grabs, to be occupied by those bereft of all vestiges of morality and ethics? Second, if those who occupy Parliament, which we loftily describe as the ‘Temple of Democracy’, cannot be trusted, then who can We, the People of India, trust? Third, if so deep has been the corrosion, can the creation of a new oversight institution, namely the Lokpal, really have an impact on the manner in which affairs of state are conducted?
For far too long we have kept our eyes averted from what transpires behind the shuttered windows and shut doors of Lutyens’s Delhi -- partly because it hurts our sensibility and largely because we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by bunkum about the need to draw a line between public and private lives. That line has long been erased by those who hold public office. Corruption is not only about stealing money, it’s also about trading favours for pleasures of the flesh. This is not about sitting in moral judgement. It’s about rectitude and probity without which the deepening rot in our ‘system’ cannot be arrested, leave alone reversed.
— The writer is a journalist, political analyst and activist