A large public meeting is in progress. The speaker is emphatic, he is shrill. The crowd is restless, disorderly. Some are talking away, in one corner of the audience an argument has broken out. In a word, the usual commotion. The speaker demands attention. People go on talking, arguing, munching, lolling about. The organiser grabs the mike: he shouts at the audience. People shout at each other to keep quiet, to let them hear what the speaker is saying. Relative quiet. Moments later the commotion has commenced again. Someone climbs down from the stage, charges into the crowd – berating them, cowing them with a baton. His back has but to turn, and the shuffling, murmuring, arguing commence again. Gandhiji reaches the pandal. As he walks to the stage, Vinoba recalls, a reverential silence sweeps the congregation. The meeting proceeds. The next time people start talking and moving about in some corner, Gandhiji merely looks that way, he raises a finger to his lips. Everyone falls silent, becomes attentive again.
That is authority, not enforced with a baton, not by shouting. By just a glance in that direction, by the mere raising of a finger to one’s lips.
What is true of individuals is true of governments. A government cannot put a policeman to monitor every citizen, and then put a policeman to police every policeman. A government runs on iqbal – on the esteem in which people hold it. Competence adds to esteem of course, but the foundation on which it rests is the moral presence of the rulers, their personal conduct. And people form their judgment by looking at what governments and leaders do, and setting it against the ideals they have proclaimed. If someone goes around as a dacoit, accosts you, and walk away with your purse, people will say, “God, how lucky you are. He merely took your purse, at least he spared your life.” But if a person who proclaims himself to be a mahatma, borrows your pen to scribble a line, and forgets to return it, you will exclaim, “The damn fellow, he struts about as a mahatma, and pockets other people’s pens.”
Leaders proclaim ideals mechanically, as if in a ritual – listen to them on October 2, listen to them when they berate the conduct of a rival. Little do they realise that they will be judged, their parties and governments will be judged by the very words and examples they are espousing so eloquently. In a word, at all times ideals are a jealous lot: if, having proclaimed them, we are ever alert that our rivals will pounce on every little departure, they channel us towards improvement; if we depart from them, they work to drive hypocrisy deeper into our nature — we get habituated to proclaiming ideals from platforms, and disregarding them in practice. That entails deep injury even in our personal life and relationships.
In public life in any case, ideals carry a cost, they boomerang—one should not proclaim them mechanically any more than one should chant a mantra mechanically. Nor should one proclaim them for some momentary advantage — to convince an electorate, for instance, that one is high-minded.
Unfortunately, few act on this simple, obvious truth. And so, ideals boomerang.
An unvarying sequence
And when they boomerang, governments, even individuals in authority react in a sequence that differs so little from government to government that I have come to regard it as being intrinsic to the very nature of government — a sequence that is the mirror image of the five stages through which Gandhiji had said every movement passes.
First, ignore, look the other way, pretend indifference. Second, deny. Deny vociferously. Third, lawyerly evasions and explanations — the cleverer these are, the more they undermine the credibility of the individual putting forth the defence as well as of the government. Fourth, counterattack: “You did it when you were in power.” Little does the individual or government realise that with every fact which it puts out to establish that its opponents had done wrong, it is convincing everyone that this group — the one that had claimed to be different from its rivals – is no different. Fifth, denounce the persons who are pursuing the matter, for instance the paper. Paste motives on them, conjure conspiracies.
With every passing day, the government’s miasma encompasses more and more. First members of government conclude that one paper — usually The Indian Express — is against them, that it is out to topple them, and that it is doing so in league with, indeed at the behest of unseen forces. This used to be the “foreign hand”, then it became Reliance, these days we are back to the Americans. Then that the “media” — the whole of it — is congenitally against the government. Then that the chief vigilance commissioner is against it — he is an appointee of the previous regime, after all. Then that the Election Commission is out to embarrass the government. Then that the judiciary is exceeding its ambit. The more self-righteous the group is, the more, for instance, it identifies itself with the country or some great cause, the more loyalists it has among its members, the more courtiers and tale-carriers, the more swiftly it convinces itself that everyone who is criticising it is doing so, not because he has a different opinion or because he is pursuing facts per se, but because he is a conspirator.
The more the government comes to believe this, the less it attends to the task at hand — that is to answer the facts that have been brought out about its conduct.
Next, it smears the original source, the umpire. Look at the insinuations about Mitrokhin yesterday, about Volcker today.
Neither device works, as it never can: for the problem is not the ones who are holding up the mirror, the problem is the fact that has surfaced, the problem is the contrast between the ideals the group had proclaimed and the conduct which has been revealed — the government moves to suppress the ones who are bringing out the facts. “Sock it to them.” Dig out the dirt on them. See what inquiries can be launched against them. Are there loans they have not repaid?
In India that never, but never works: every government that has raised a hand against the Press in the last fifty years has had that hand singed. These days it rebounds with redoubled force — for among the ideals that such a group would surely have proclaimed, specially when it was in Opposition, is commitment to free speech; among the things for which it would have traduced its opponents would surely have been their efforts to suppress critics during the time they were in office.
The ones named
The one whose name has come up traverses an equally unvarying sequence, a parallel one. He denies. When that is no longer possible, he pleads that whatever he did, he did for a higher purpose. At the least, he did it for the party, the leader. After all, elections have to be fought. Money is needed for them. The leader tries to distance himself or herself. On the other side, the person who has been caught, clings to him or her. Antulay and Chimanbhai Patel and L. N. Mishra would not let go of Indira Gandhi, others did not let go of Rajiv Gandhi. Each fielded the same defence: “I am nobody, Madam. I am only a loyal soldier. Attacking me is just the first step. The moment they succeed in getting me, they will come after you.”
On occasion, the leader, or persons indistinguishable from him or her is himself culpable. He or she, therefore, knows even better than the person about whom something has broken out how vulnerable he or she is. Even when the top leader has not done anything wrong, there are enough persons in the higher, inner circles who have reasons to fear, “If the leader does not take a stand here and now, I could be next.”
“This is not a matter about one individual,” they say. “The prestige of the party is at stake,” they say. “It is a question of the government’s authority,” they say. “If it caves in to a mere newspaper, how will it be able to govern?” They drag the government’s naak, the party’s naak, the leader’s naak into the affair.
And there is a real problem. By a strange turn, the moment a person is caught, he becomes credible! So low has the repute of the political class fallen that, the moment someone is caught, people believe him, and not the one he accuses. When Harshad Mehta says he gave Rs 1 crore to Narasimha Rao in a suitcase, people believe him, not Narasimha Rao. My friend, Shekhar Gupta recalls a delicious story that Giani Zail Singh told him. Gianiji was responsible for collecting some funds for the Congress. The traders of a bazaar in Patiala had agreed to contribute. But they just wouldn’t pay up. Gianaji called the SHO, asked him to get hold of a tawaif, seat her in a rickshaw, and send word that she was being brought to the bazaar, that whomsoever she identified as having been a customer, will be taken in to the havaalaat. The rickshaw, with the lady in it, had but to reach the gali, the traders downed their shutters, and rushed to settle their dues! For they knew, everyone would believe the tawaif!
The government and the leader are thus locked into a fix. The leader had used the subalterns as foil. The subalterns now use the leader as shield. Abu captured the result memorably. JP’s Nav Nirman movement was demanding that Chimanbhai Patel, then chief minister of Gujarat, and then Abdul Ghafoor, then chief minister of Bihar, be removed for inefficiency and corruption. They denied. They defied. They denounced. The movement swelled. The unvarying sequence.. Abu had one Congressman telling another, “We refuse to end inefficiency and corruption under duress.”
The one caught becomes gangrene in the leader’s arms. If he or she cuts him off, he is without hands. If he does not, the gangrene spreads.
The two sequences, of what governments invariably do and what the one who has been caught invariably does, merge. Both the one about whom facts have exploded, as well as the government become brazen. “OK, we did it. Satisfied? We will do it again. So what? I don’t give a damn. I am a fighter. I will fight back. I have lived like a tiger, I will live like a tiger.”
Nothing hastens the denouement as strength. The worse the conduct of the rival has been; the more skillful one is at contriving explanations and evasions; the more muscle one can deploy through the agencies of State, the more swiftly the government will rush to the climax — of shamelessness.
By that stage, it convinces itself that brazenness is defiance, it mistakes shamelessness for strength: “We are not giving in to, we will never give in to pressure.”
Another factor hastens it along the successive steps. Revelations insulate. Besieged, members of a group such as a government spend time huddled with each other, in the company of hangers-on and courtiers — whose stock in trade is to produce “proof” after “proof” of conspiracy. The group gets cut off from the people, its leaders all the more so – it becomes deaf to the fact that the explanations and insinuations and conspiracy theories are convincing no one. Again, strength weakens. The more disciplined the government or the organisation, the greater the awe or reverence in which ordinary members hold the higher-ups in it, the less its members are liable to be listening to outsiders even to begin with. Under siege, such a group will shut off unwelcome information even more swiftly.
Victory is the surest defeat: should the individual or government succeed in deflecting the barrage, should the proof it proffers of rivals having done the same thing convince people that it has done nothing it need be ashamed of, its end is sealed. That kind of conduct now becomes the new standard within the group: the leaders, having allowed that wrong-doer to continue can scarcely move against others lower down. Indeed, these “resourceful” persons acquire greater and greater importance within the organisation. As their ways become the ways of the group, it gets into more and more scrapes. Each new scrape makes it more dependent on those clever, brazen persons — for their skills are the ones that it now needs the most. They become indispensable to the party and government. Moreover, precisely because the organisation stood by them, precisely because they survived in spite of such shameful disclosures, their derring-do becomes the role model within the organisation.
The organisation is thus transformed inside-out. An organisation that stands by one rogue, soon has many rogues in it. An organisation that has many rogues, comes to rely on rogues to do its work. An organisation that comes to rely on rogues to do its work, soon falls into the hands of rogues. The honest “leaders” we see in public and associate with the group become just the utsav murtis, the surrogate idols that are taken out during festival days – elections in the case of a political group and paraded around through the town. The real controllers — the ones in possession of the sanctum sanctorum — are now the ones whom the organisation had – out of that mistaken sense of solidarity, honour, whatever – been beguiled to “rescue”. This becomes apparent within days of the stonewalling: in every meeting, the very ones whose misdeeds have been on display, speak and insist the most. The tables are literally overturned: defending the ones whose conduct has brought disgrace to the organisation becomes the duty of everyone in the party, the government – for the exposures about them have been proclaimed to be a conspiracy against, an assault on the organisation. And those who had been doing their assigned work honestly, who had been living by the ideals that the organisation had proclaimed come to be looked upon as deviants.
Thus the organisation rots from within.
And it loses without. If the people at large continue to hold on to the old, higher standard, the group is doomed. If they too come to think of such conduct as custom, they are doomed, the society itself is doomed.
Role of the media
The papers, and now the TV channels which are pursuing the facts are, of course, attacked. “Trial by media,” those inconvenienced shout, as do many rivals in the media itself. The Times of India at the Antulay time. Hindustan Times at the time the St. Kitts forgeries were nailed.
The first rule for those excavating the facts, therefore, is to shut their ears to calumny, to blind themselves to motives that are being pasted. Once the facts are established, the traducers will fall silent of their own. How foolish they will soon look. They take up cudgels on behalf of the ones about whom facts have come out. The government cheers them on. It supplies contrived arguments to them, half truths.. But it soon realises that it just has to do something. Antulay goes. The forgeries are nailed. The one in question is deprived of a portfolio. The defenders don’t know where to look. Hence, the traducers will have their just rewards soon, just ignore them, just go on digging.
The second rule is just that: persist. Newsmen must be crocodiles. If someone puts his leg in your jaws, just don’t let go.
If wrong has been done, and provided the press persists, facts will keep coming out. From within the government as much as from outside. Every government, every party is riven by rivalries. Opponents of the government may not have access to the facts. Persons within it who have been slighted by the one who is in a corner today, persons who scent an opportunity for themselves should this man be removed, will ferret tidbits for you.
Indeed, unexpected sources will reach out to the paper, and bring new facts. But they will do so only if the paper or the journalist shows by his record and perseverance that, once the facts reach the paper, they will be published, that the journalist will not be cowed or bribed into silence.
Pressed, the rulers will make mistakes. They will dodge. They will prevaricate. They will lie. Each of these will convince the reader that the rulers are in the wrong, and the media is right. In any event, as has been well said, “Truth coheres, falsehood falls apart.” In the Indian case there is another helpful feature: time and again we have seen that the lies and dodges are always inept, they are easy to nail. So, one should persist, and keep at the story – from this angle today, from another tomorrow. Soon, others and other fora will take up the matter: someone will file a writ in the courts, some active judge will take the matter on board. Someone will seek the information under the new Right to Information Act here. Some journalist in the US will seek the Iraqi documents that the US government has under the freedom of Information Act of that country.
But there is a sine qua non. In addition to the fact that the paper must be pursuing the truth, it must be clean as a pin. Pushed to the wall, rulers will use instruments of the State to cow it down.
Provided those two ingredients are present – that the paper has been pursuing the truth and that it is clean – that final act of the government, repression, will prove the point conclusively.