Sunday, November 08, 2009

Sex & scams: How we turn a blind eye

Sex & scams: How we turn a blind eye
By M J Akbar

Our Indian response to a scandalous mess is neat and categorised. Cash and sex are the north and south pole of mass interest, each with a sprawling magnetic field. We divide the hemispheres with the equator of logic. Cash and corruption are the preserve of politics. Sex is the province of glamour. We refuse to recognise any cross-over evidence.

No one wants to know how much black money floats in cinema, although the float might be a flood from dubious sources. Film publications are apathetic to finance. Their cover stories are devoted to who is sleeping with whom, or, more likely, pretending to sleep with whom. Lead stars are sometimes required to manufacture an affair as part of a film’s pre-launch publicity even when it is obvious, from body language, that the hero and heroine are heartily sick of each other.

Equally, mainline media shrugs off a politician’s private life. This is in sharp contrast to the Anglo-American press and public, who hold a public figure to standards of probity they do not apply to themselves. It seems odd that societies so liberated on Friday nights should turn so puritan over politicians’ weekends, but there it is. The French are more honest. They vote for lunch hour frisson.

No journalist worth his or her laptop, therefore, would waste a moment on the private life of Madhu Koda, the 38-year-old Jharkhand politician who worked in a mine in the early ’90s but is apparently purchasing Liberian mines today. If CBI leaks are to be believed, then young Koda has enough left over to lubricate the silent wheels of hawala and make a bid for a Rs 4,000 crore SEZ. Think. If this is what Koda can do at 38, what might he have achieved by 76, which is within the age band of our PMs. Think again. If this is the loot from a small state, what could another Koda earn from Maharashtra, Andhra or Karnataka? The BJP government in Bangalore is not coming apart because of a deep and riveting ideological debate on Hindutva. It’s the money, honey. If the figures seem insane, just remember that greed spits at limits.

A relevant measure of Indian democracy is the shift in the scale of scandal. V K Krishna Menon was pilloried because he arranged some 50-odd jeeps for the Congress in the first general election in 1952. At the end of the decade, Feroze Gandhi, Mrs Indira Gandhi’s husband, commandeered the headlines by exposing a couple of businessmen. Their names are unimportant now. Suffice to say that it was all very secular: one was a Hindu and the other a Muslim. The sums involved were a piffle. No inflation-escalation calculation is going to bring them to Liberian levels.

The connivance of major parties in the Koda scam is the icing on the story. They all helped his upward mobility in one form or the other, with Congress support for his chief ministership being a stunning example of cynicism. Local journalists had reported much of this while he was in power. No one bothered.

The news from the south pole is actually far better. The filmstar scandals of the ’50s were often tainted by the communal acrimony of the post-Partition decade. A film paper like ‘Mother India’ used to go apoplectic when Nargis and Raj Kapoor practised in real life what they preached on-screen. Today, Raj Kapoor’s granddaughter lives with a man born a Muslim and no Indian owl cares two hoots. Nor is box office affected. Indians have shed much of the compulsive bitterness in Hindu-Muslim relations.

The north pole, however, is in meltdown, the body politic ravaged by venality beyond the voter’s comprehension. What was a nick in Nehru’s time, needing a mere Band-Aid, has spread into an incurable cancer.

Patriotism, goes the proverb, is the last refuge of the scoundrel. The first refuge of a man charged with swindling thousands of crores of public wealth is clearly a stomach-ache. The second refuge is high blood pressure. Between the two, you can always smuggle yourself out of the dreary confines of custody, with mere mosquitoes for company, to the more salubrious environment of a hospital, which is where Koda reached at a brisk pace. The stomach-ache is key to this life-enhancing, if not quite life-saving, switch. High blood pressure, regretfully, can be measured and lowered. A stomach can always ache at will, swerving away from the locational probes of a doctor, particularly in a well-nourished stomach.

In any case, time, and a generous bank balance, tends to soften the discomforts of incarceration. If the cash flow is supportive, a prison can even become a health ashram, with badminton thrown in as an optional extra. You never know: with diet control and regular morning walks that stomach might never need to ache again. It is not the health of a robust Koda that should be our concern, but that of a more fragile entity called democracy.

Koda has a stomach-ache. Democracy has cancer.

Appeared in Times of India - November 8, 2009

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