WITH EYES WIDE OPEN
D. N. Bezboruah
The other day, I was both intrigued and amused to read a news item about the proposal to introduce a Bill to make acceptance of bribes a crime. This is amusing to say the least, because we already have more than one law to cover different forms of corruption, and bribe-taking is definitely a major and very common form of corruption. Quite obviously, someone in the corridors of power who had something to do with drafting laws was not applying his mind. What we have now is a clear act of pretence that (a) we do not have laws to cover the acceptance of bribes as constituting a corrupt practice; and (b) a whole lot of politicians, including lawmakers, are pretending that we do not have laws to cover all aspects of corruption. In a sense, this is not terribly surprising considering that our politics hinges almost entirely on several quotidian acts of pretence, big and small. In other words, to survive in Indian politics, one must master the fine art of pretence.
Look at the large number of Union ministers and chief ministers of our States who begin their careers with the pretence of being totally clean and incorruptible. Quite often, the image projected not only turns out to be very untrue, but one propped up with a great deal of pretence. Many years ago, P.A. Sangma commented that it was virtually impossible for any chief minister of any Indian State to be honest and entirely free of corruption. He said that chief ministers invariably had to buy the continued support of MLAs by paying them fairly hefty sums every month. I cannot precisely recall whether the statement was made when he was Speaker of the Lok Sabha or when he had just ceased to adorn that very important post. If I am not mistaken, the statement was made after he had served his time as Lok Sabha Speaker. And unlike Indira Gandhi, who had announced in Parliament that corruption was universal, Sangma was at least discerning enough not to make such a statement in Parliament. However, coming from a former Speaker of the Lok Sabha, it was not possible to brush it is aside casually as a figment of his imagition. My own assessment of how pretence can be a fairly reliable cloak of the reality goes back several decades to States like Himachal Pradesh where the true colour of successive chief ministers got revealed quite a few years after they took the reins of office. There have been quite a few other chief ministers elsewhere who maged to conclude their innings in power as paragons of virtue despite being corrupt. This is possible because they invariably appointed quite a few Cabinet ministers who were thoroughly corrupt and were remarkably adept at passing on the loaves and fishes of office to their leader without anyone being aware of what was going on. One of the standard ways of sustaining the image of Mr clean despite being corrupt, is to passiotely support legislations seeking to prevent corruption and to promote transparency and accountability in politics. In fact, there are no better known ways of throwing red herrings in Indian politics.
This artifice of constantly relying on pretence is something that our politicians have maged to do by capitalizing on the fact that of all communication systems known to us it is only human language that ebles people to tell lies. No animal mode of communication ebles the user to tell lies. This ability to tell lies in human language must not be seen solely as an aberration. After all, much of our creative literature would not have been possible if people were uble to tell lies or at least to deviate somewhat from reality with the use of their imagition for literary creations that have been accepted as masterpieces over the years. More often than not, the deviations from reality have been well-intentioned and often concerned more with the reality as it ought to be rather than as it is. All pretence, likewise, is a form of lying or a deviation from reality. And all great acting, whether on stage or for the screen, is very competent and artistic pretence. When we are dealing with the visual arts, such pretence entertains and quite often also inspires without doing any harm to the viewer. We pay large sums to be so entertained when we watch plays. We also readily bring into function our “willing suspension of disbelief” when we watch plays or movies.
Dealing with the pretence that is so commonplace in the world of politics is an entirely different exercise. And because the pretence that we encounter among politicians is so very different and so often a weapon of harmful deceit, we have to be constantly on our guard not to be adversely affected by such calculated deceit. It does not take very long to discover that in Indian politics the truth rarely has any place at all. There is a marked dichotomy in the behaviour of most Indian politicians. The normal mode of communication between the politician and the outsider (the common citizen who is not a politician) is one of pretence. The politician will generally make promises and assurances that he has no intentions of honouring. He has to resort to a great deal of pretence to make his promises sound truthful and honest. At the end of the encounter, the victim too has to pretend that nothing harmful has happened to him. He has to rely solely on pretence to keep the doors open for help in the future. For the politician, the truth is solely for fellow party members and cronies.
It is remarkable how far the entire business of pretence in high places can be extended in cases of unethical conduct among VVIPs. We have had both the Foreign Minister of India and the Chief Minister of Rajasthan helping out an Indian crimil (an economic offender) based in England. None of them have offered to resign or been removed from office as punishment. The pretence that nothing serious enough has happened has gone on and the Prime Minister too has been pretending (through his sustained silence) that nothing serious worth punishing or even taking notice of has happened. We have seen how Parliament has been paralysed as a consequence. And we saw later on how the Foreign Minister, taking advantage of a Lok Sabha almost entirely cleansed of the Opposition, was able to attempt a highly emotiol defence of her conduct by claiming that she was helping the ailing wife of Lalit Modi and not Lalit Modi himself. The Foreign Minister probably imagines that she would be able to convince not only all members of Parliament but the people India as well that she had committed no diplomatic impropriety. The same charges (including persol friendship and help extended to someone with several charges by the Enforcement Directorate) can be levelled at Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje of Rajasthan as well. More serious charges can be drawn up against the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh for his involvement in the Vyapam scam. But right now the Prime Minister and the BJP are busy pretending that nothing serious has happened. The game of pretence is being played with silence that is actually very loud. But no one seems to care because a huge majority in Parliament helps to cover more than just warts.
This game of pretence will continue to be played in different ways. It will not take us very long to discover that political parties of India are not very different in the way they deal with their leading players when they have committed serious offences. The weapon of pretence—that all is well and permissible if one belongs to the ruling party—seems to work for all political parties. And the pretence can be carried out with stony silence.
What should be abundantly clear by now is that we don’t need yet another law to make the offering of bribes a crime. What we need is a law against the kind of pretence that politicians practice in dealing with citizens—for deceit and duping. We must also find a way of ensuring that the law against pretence will not work against our gifted actors who use pretence so artistically and creatively.