Rich and good? Here's your 'get out of jail' card

Ranjona Banerji  When businessman Rajat Gupta was sent to jail in the US for insider trading, many rich and want-to-be-rich Indians (no one else had really heard of him) were shocked. Not just because a rich man had gone to jail but because a “good man” had been sent to jail. This is because in India, rich and good people rarely get sent to jail. This is not to suggest that the justice system is better anywhere else; it’s just that we are not used to it. We are used to poor people going to jail, of course. That doesn’t surprise anyone. But a rich and “good man” going behind bars? How bad is that?

What determines a good man is unspoken and unknown actually.  Like in the days of greetings cards, if you bought them from CRY or WWF or UNICEF, you probably qualified. It implies that you are kind and giving. In that sense they’re right. Gupta gave advice to a friend. The problem was that his generosity was against the law.

So it is with Bollywood star Salman Khan. He’s a good man, kind and giving. That he is accused of breaking a few laws is immaterial. We heard the same arguments with Sanjay Dutt: a sweet, innocent chap.

Salman KhanSalman Khan greets his fans after the Bombay High Court suspended his sentence in the 2002 hit-and-run case, on May 8. Fans and other celebrities had come out in the actor’s support after he was convicted by the Sessions Court.  File Pic

The underlying picture, you might think, is that only terrible, sociopathic serial-killer villains should be in jail. But even that won’t work. We like the idea of politicians going to jail. Most Indians would agree that most politicians are venal or corrupt or both. Plus we’re tired of their many privileges and we would be really happy if they suffered a bit. Here, most of us don’t care if they are good or whether the charges against them are real or concocted. We know inside us that they must have, at some point, done some really bad things.

I exempt the fans of J Jayalalithaa, former and soon-to-be-again chief minister of Tamil Nadu from those who want politicians to go to jail. The Amma brigade cannot be expected to be as cynically dismissive of politicians as the rest of us. After 19 years and some days in jail (tearfully recounted with beauty and sentiment to Simi Garewal on television), Amma of the AIADMK is acquitted of corruption charges by the Karnataka High Court. No joy for the DMK here and no schadenfreude either. And we’ve forgotten the carefully worked out PR stories of how Karunanidhi’s daughter Kanimozhi spent a few days in jail being good to inmates after the 2G scam broke. But you know how it is, even in jail you are a good person.

When Ramalinga Raju of Satyam went to jail, we were angry that we had been fooled into thinking that he was a “good person”, so we didn’t really mind. Now that he’s out on bail, we’ve more or less forgotten what the whole story was about. And no one even bothered to spin a “good man” googly when it came to Sahara’s Subrata Roy. As a result, he is still in jail and no one has managed to put up Rs 10,000 crore as bail.

In the past few days, we’ve been short-changed of those much-coveted “jail for the rich and powerful” moments, by the courts and the legal system. Or so we believe because we’re much happier when (or if) the legal system works for us, but not so much when it does for other people.

I think there’s a solution, though. We should have community service in India for the rich and good who might break a few laws here and there, rather than jail time. Like put them in colourful jumpsuits and make them clear litter from the roads. Out there in the real world where we can see them, collecting garbage.

The other thing is to make going to jail a social cachet, like it was during the freedom struggle. Yes, I know. Our fashion designers will have to get to work first. Blue and white stripes is so wannabe Breton fisherman, darling.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @ranjona

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