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Love actually

“I love you,Fiza”,Chand Mohammad gushed to his new wife,and an assembly of journalists.

“I love you,Fiza”,Chand Mohammad gushed to his new wife,and an assembly of journalists. And they (both) lapped it up. The many turns in the story — conversion,second marriage,family disowning,drunken disappearance,suicide attempt,and now the return of the prodigal — has been covered by the media in all its tragi-comic detail. The saga is also interesting for another reason: the breathless coverage of this political affair marks a breach in protocol. The Indian media generally shies away from the private lives of our politicians.

Britain and America,on the other hand,have long regarded political private lives as fair game. Reportage on British cabinet minister John Profumo’s love for a showgirl,the mistress of a Soviet spy,sparked an intrusive tabloid tradition that continues to this day. In the United States,permissiveness for John F. Kennedy’s many mistresses was replaced by vicious moralising during the Monica Lewinsky affair. The scandal also coincided with an invigorated conservative movement in America,one that assumed sleaze in every Liberal heart and family values in their own. Media coverage of “every little stain” only played into these political fault-lines. Perhaps this Anglo-Saxon moralising stems from puritanical roots,where the need for personal probity still permeates public life. In this,American media coverage of political love affairs mirrors John Updike’s writings on the decadence of the swinging 60s — florid voyeurism mixed with Protestant distaste.

The French veer to the other extreme. President Valery Giscard D’estaing liked to be accompanied on foreign visits by a porn actress. His successor François Mitterrand’s wife and mistress both attended his funeral. Presidential contender Ségolène Royal was in a 30 year long relationship with the then head of her socialist party. And the man who beat her — Nicolas Sarkozy — simply begs to be written about. But the French press (and public) has traditionally looked the other way; even when Carla Bruni’s dress sense cannot be wished away,they write with some embarrassment.

Chand Mohammad apart,the Indian media’s reluctance to speculate on the private lives of our netas indicates a squandered colonial inheritance. Nehru’s relationship with Edwina Mountbatten was considered no-go for the first batch of post-Independence journos. The tradition continues: reporting on the affairs,romances,and dalliances of the political class is considered taboo. Sometimes,the personal seeps into the political: When mistresses and illegitimate heirs stake their claim to power,it’s impossible to ignore their story. So when silence is simply not an option,our journalists reluctantly tread the path,explaining away love as “mentoring”,“friendship”,and “closeness”. Like Bollywood euphemisms for kissing (close-ups of flowers ‘necking’) these phrases,bubbling with Freudian innuendo,inform the reader without appearing to do so.

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The reader doesn’t need to be informed; infidelity in India has never cost anybody an election. Does that indicate a mature and tolerant electorate? Hardly. The pub attack in Mangalore exposes an emboldened moral brigade policing our public spaces. But even without them,Indian society is hardly as permissive of extra-marital affairs as the French are; we frown upon these transgressions by more common folk. Why then judge our politicians by different standards?

Here’s one explanation: Our voters think of politicians as feudal lords. Family succession isn’t just permitted,it’s the norm. And sexual transgressions are seen as legitimate perks; kings are allowed many mistresses. Notice also the gender bias: it’s always the male politico having ‘fun’ with a pretty young thing,never the other way around. The feudal status of Indian politicians also explains why corruption is dealt with more severely than infidelity. When was the last time promiscuity became an electoral issue?

Whatever the reason,staying away from politicians’ love lives is probably the decent thing to do. But the absence of good political biography in India is made worse by self-censorship when it comes to unveiling our representatives’ private selves. Not all lights are intrusive; not all personal reportage gossip. For instance,the Chand Mohammad saga has raised serious questions: Is converting to Islam just to get married again legal? Does this indicate sexism in our politics? Perhaps this coverage marks a new beginning: of a fiercely competitive TV news culture changing the rules of the game. But it’s too early to say. Until then,our need for larger-than-life netas makes for a political culture less about human frailties,more about looming cardboard cut-outs.

vinay.sitapati@expressindia.com

First published on: 13-02-2009 at 01:45:39 am
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