Byline by M J Akbar: Politicians don’t get stiff necks
Which is the bigger crime in politics, hypocrisy or stupidity? On careful consideration it must be the second, since hypocrisy is not merely useful but often necessary. Only a very foolish minister or Member of Parliament would tell his or her constituents that the petition scribbled on an untidy piece of paper is either meaningless or untenable. A good politician never gets a stiff neck, because he is constantly exercising it downwards, nodding yes vigorously when what he really wants to indicate is a calm and decorous no.
Hypocrisy can be, in specific circumstances, productive. Stupidity is always counterproductive. Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan opted for stupidity when Congress leaders began to pile upon him, obviously after instructions from the top, after he was civil to Amitabh Bachchan during the second opening of the Bandra sealink in Mumbai. (In the old days, inaugurations used to come in two varieties: either they were fraudulent exercises in laying a foundation stone when there was no prospect of anything being built later. Or they were one-off affairs in which a grandee cut a ribbon, smiled for the cameras, made a speech and went home. Now they are designed for multiplier effect; the same project keeps getting re-opened in parts.)
Under attack, Chavan claimed that he would never have gone to the function had he been aware that Amitabh, an international superstar for two generations, had been invited. This makes two things clear: the Chief Minister of Maharashtra does not read newspapers; and his security detail doesn’t mention who will be beside him at a high profile event. He also expects you and I to believe this. When you set out to tell a lie, you should at least have the decency to tell an intelligent one.
The trouble with public functions is that there are pesky photographers and they take pictures. They wait for the moment when you are animated and smiling; it makes for a better picture. Chavan was doing both as he sat shoulder to shoulder with Amitabh. There was nothing to suggest that he considered Amitabh toxic, somewhere between contagious flu and bubonic plague. Both Amitabh and Chavan were, in fact, being courteous and decent, which is what, I am sure they are as human beings. Amitabh continued to exhibit those qualities after the event; politics dragged Chavan into a bog.
The Congress rationale for bad manners is that Amitabh has agreed to be a brand ambassador for Gujarat by promoting the state’s tourism, and was photographed in the company of Narendra Modi. Fine, but why is such political morality an exclusive exercise? There has been no such diktat about Ratan Tata, who not only took land on handsome terms from Narendra Modi for his Nano project but praised Modi as just the kind of Chief Minister he likes. Many industrialists are as close to Modi and the BJP as they are to Congress, and this is not taken personally.
In any case, it ill behoves a party to take a moral stand when it protects a Sajjan Kumar for nearly three decades, and still manages to ensure, through its control of the executive, soft and biased treatment by the police. Modi must be held accountable for the unforgiveable Gujarat riots, and there must be constant pressure on the judicial process to hasten what has been, so far, only a slow and winding route to his doorstep. But it has at least been faster than the journey after the anti-Sikh riots.
There is a rational reason why Ratan Tata, or any other industrialist, cannot be condemned for sitting in the same frame as Modi. No one in his senses expects a businessman to stop investing in Gujarat just because Modi is Chief Minister. Democracy has processes through which crime and punishment are measured. Businessmen will not pass judgement at the expense of their balance sheets.
The only regrettable element in this overblown and completely unnecessary fracas is that a public event has been vitiated by personal preferences. This destroys the culture of democracy. Politics provides for wide leeway. Is it secular for Sharad Pawar, for instance, to call on Bal Thackeray with a bunch of flowers and should that be the cause of a rupture in the Congress-NCP alliance in Maharashtra? Even Muslim voters, who have no sympathy for any Thackeray, would laugh at such silly dogmatism.
Ashok Chavan would have done himself a lot of good had he simply told the truth in a controversy where truth served him best. All he needed to say was that he had not sent out the invitations; and that he had been taught the virtue of good manners, which require civil behaviour. He was not offering Amitabh Bachchan a place in his Cabinet; he was only conversing with a man whose films he had seen and enjoyed, and who has, through his screen presence, become a worldwide icon. But that would have required self-confidence and self-belief. Neither can be purchased off the shelf.