M D Nalapat
During her younger days, the present Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha (House of the People, or Lower House in Parliament) Sushma Swaraj was a modern woman, definitely in step with the most progressive elements of the 20th century. Originally a Socialist before she joined the conservative Hindu-centric Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 1990s, Swaraj championed the right of a woman to her own lifestyle, earning for herself condemnation from those who believe that a woman’s role is what has been described by the ancient Indian lawgiver Manu: as a slave of first her father, then her husband and finally her own son. She dressed soberly but attractively, and refused to observe “purdah” and avoid contact with men. In the modern world, men and women need to work closely together, so it was understandable that Ms Swaraj (who is happily married) functioned in close proximity to such socialist giants as former Defense Minister George Fernandes and former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, steadily rising in stature as a woman politician who understood the need for India’s society to modernize and move away from ancient restrictions and prejudices. However, once she took over as Information and Broadcasting Minister in the BJP-led government in 1998, Sushma Swaraj had a transformation, even demanding that female newsreaders in the state-run broadcasting service cover their arms fully while on air.
Clearly, this new avatar of a once-progressive woman politician would have been comfortable with the dress code enforced in Iran, where a woman has to be fully draped even in the privacy of her own home when men are present who are not husbands and sons However, Ms Swaraj should not be blamed for such a return into the medieval past. She naturally wishes to someday become the second lady PM after Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi, and has calculated that only a Saudi-style adherence to “modesty” and to its enforcement will gain her the support of conservatives in the BJP, many of whom marry off their daughters at a young age and are against the teaching of English to the young. These days, she demurely covers her head and modestly lowers her gaze when men are present, a very different avatar from her bold, pathbreaking past, a past that energized and motivated hundreds of thousands of young Indian women to follow her example and break free from the fetters of convention into a lifestyle that is closer to that followed in Europe or China.
Like Ms Swaraj, Ms Soni - also happily married and as charming as the Leader of the Opposition - is now seeking to win over the followers of the ancient lawgiver Manu by seeking to cleanse Indian television programs of “adult” content, which in her definition means any contact between two adults of the opposite sex. The latest to feel the Soni whip has been a “reality show”, Big Boss, which has been ordered to be screened only after 11pm (by which time hopefully, Ms Soni would be fast asleep and thereby immune to the severe cultural and moral danger of being exposed to onscreen men and women in close proximity to each other).
The television channel, apparently in the belief that India is a democracy, has thus far refused to obey her orders, leaving it open to harsh punishment from an angry I & B Minister who entered politics as an acolyte of the ruthless younger son of Indira Gandhi, Sanjay and has now shifted her loyalty to a lady not entirely popular with Sanjay Gandhi, his sister-in-law Sonia Gandhi who (though of European origin) seems comfortable with the Moral Policing of the airwaves being carried out by her ministerial follower. Like Sushma Swaraj, Ms Soni was at one time a modern woman, who presented an attractive role model to hundreds of millions of young Indian women, who are no longer willing to allow themselves to be dictated to by men. Of course, neither she nor her BJP cultural twin (who too originally hails from the Punjab, as does Leader of the Opposition in the Upper Houese Arun Jaitley and PM Manmohan Singh, thereby bringing India closer to Pakistan) seem to be aware of the internet or to the presence of foreign television channels, through which any citizen can get access to the sort of programming that they have judged to be “un-Indian”. Perhaps Ms Soni needs to use the harsh internet laws passed by Union Home Minister P Chidambaram ( a believer in strong controls and restrictions, except where they relate to his own family and friends and to the extended family of UPA boss Sonia Gandhi) in order to send to jail any individual accessing the internet.
These days, almost all users get spam that when opened reveals “adult” content. According to the laws prevailing in “democratic” India, merely opening such attachments can earn the luckless internet surfer a prison term of two to six years, another innovation brought in by the Sonia Gandhi team since 2004. Today, the citizen is subject to the same harsh laws and penalties that were the case when the British were in charge, to escape which the only recourse is the payment of bribes. Small wonder that corruption since Sonia Gandhi took charge of the country six years ago has mushroomed into a scale that is threatening to topple the Prime Minister, who looks fated to go down in history as “Scam Singh”. Unless, of course, he succeeds in thwarting the fixers and dealers in the Congress Party who are working hard to make him the scapegoat for their actions, interestingly in collusion with key Opposition leaders, whose families too have become stupendously rich during the past two decades.
The only way to clean the mess up would be an independent probe directed by India’s spotlessly clean Chief Justice Kapadia, but this seems unlikely. The politicians want to control the probe, as it affects them and their friends and family. Unless arrests of VVIPs takes place - rather than just detentions of small fry - the Prime Minister may lose the present battle to save his government and his reputation and quit in disgrace. His colleagues in the Congress Party - who are working hard to secure his resignation - are hoping that the PM’s stepping down will cool down the anger of the Indian middle classes at the corruption that is making their lives hell Sushma Swaraj and Ambika Soni are both outstanding women leaders, who have set an example for millions.
It is sad to see them succumb to those who wish to push India away from progress and into a medieval mindset. They need to ask themselves if a mere reality show on television is a greater danger to the country than the moral turpitude of their own political class. These days, politics in India is all about money, and the more the better. Dubai, London, the Maldives and other pricey destinations are witness to hordes of politicians from India, cavorting even as they pretend to uphold family values back home. Each office-bearer of a recognized political party, together with each minister and high-ranking officials, need to make public details of the foreign travel of themselves and their relatives, so that the nation is kept aware of what its leaders do for so many months of the year. Certain politicians go abroad once or twice each month, usually in different company, to silence from a media that is terrified of the vast powers of the Income-tax and Enforcement authorities.
Interestingly, the individual who as a central minister ensured that these agencies did the bidding of the High Command of the Congress Party (a group that does not include Manmohan Singh) is today the chief minister of India’s most lucrative state, Maharashtra. No one has commented on the many investigations and probes of the politically inconvenient that have been done by central agencies on the (oral and written) orders of Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan. The High Command of the Congress sees the downfall of Manmohan Singh as the only sacrifice that can cool the anger of the people. Those in the know see the PM as the only hope of bringing to book the VVIP corrupt, and hope that he will finally act like a true Punjabi and show some guts.