Just suppose Jane Felix-Browne was famous or head of state and she decided to take her partner along on an official visit, would that be acceptable? No. Even the French would not permit it. Jane is the wife of Omar, son of Osama bin Laden. He has a pretty clean record, yet there would be some awkwardness.
I bring in this analogy simply because there has been a huge discussion regarding whether Carla Bruni, the model-singer girlfriend of French President Nicholas Sarkozy, should accompany him to India, where he is to be the chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations. Protocol guardians were concerned about how they ought to treat this partnership, how she must be addressed, the kind of accommodation to be provided, and whether she ought to get prime space.
Apparently, Sarko is upset that she has opted out, giving reasons of health and other commitments. They will miss their photo-op at the Taj Mahal.
Is this merely a question of morality? The most amazing reaction was from the rightwing parties in India saying it is fine and as a guest he can bring whoever he wishes. I am sure if his lady friend was an Arab the standards would have been different. Every society has its prejudices and levels of prissiness.
Did Bill Clinton even acknowledge Monica Lewinsky? He became the reigning sex symbol due to her–he began to be considered a risk-taker (oral sex at the Oval, wow!), a true democrat (she was but an intern), and a man who was yet committed to his work (he was on the phone when she went down on him, wasn’t he?).
Paula Jones, another one of his trophies, later tried to cash in on the liaison by posing for a centrefold; she said she did it for her kids. The moral brigade was out with their “tsk, tsk”, quite forgetting that Linda Tripp squealed, the lawyers got a good deal, books were written, and Bill continued to be president.
Hillary may well become President. She owes one to these women. Today, she is happily using those episodes. She said on the Tyra Banks Show: “I never doubted Bill’s love for me, ever, and I never doubted my faith and my commitment to our daughter and our extended family. But I had to decide what I ought to do, I think it is so important to be able to hear yourself at a moment when it is hard … there are so many times when you really have to listen to yourself.”
If Paula says she dropped her clothes to keep the home (and other) fires burning, then Ms. Clinton put up with her man for the sake of media-created family values. It would, however, make sense if she desisted from saying things like, “I’m not some Tammy Wynette standing by my man”, when that is precisely what she is doing. And she is rewarded for it when the Wee Willy says, “I would do anything I could to make her the next President.” Sure, he can. After all, can we forget his famous line after his ‘internship’, “I did because I could”?
Way back in 1965 as a student Hillary was preserving her correspondence with a classmate hoping to make a million. “Don’t begrudge me my mercenary interest,” she wrote to him.
It is the same mercenary interest, and mercenary morality, that makes her declare, “In the Bible it says they asked Jesus how many times you should forgive, and he said 70 times 7. Well, I want you all to know that I’m keeping a chart.”
That got her $26 million in the first quarter of the year, reportedly almost three times as much as any politician has previously raised at that point in a presidential election. The Hillary harem of fake rectitude is a survival tactic observed in the kingdom of kinks.
Obviously, a moral position is a big thing for a politician. Ever wondered why, then, morality on its own is never an election issue? Corruption, sex, inefficiency, power-play, religion, nepotism are all lined up for a cursory inspection and a game of one-upmanship during polls, but the rod that is supposed to give a whack to these vices invariably goes limp. Some sensibly anonymous chap described morality as, “The residue left after our cravings are satisfied.” But what happens in a world where gluttons thrive?
In India we believe that, like parents, politicians don’t do it. Of course we do know about political homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexuality, adultery, molestation, child abuse, incest, mistresses posing as wives in documents on official tours, the patronage given to dancing-eyed, twinkle-toed cultural ambassadors.
There has always been a tendency to whitewash these transgressions. This is the legacy we have inherited: giving our politicians the benefit of doubt or, more likely, our indulgence. As long as they do their jobs, we reason, it does not matter. But when a boss gets cozy with his secretary we do not give a thought to the rising turnover or when a film producer and starlet jump into a couch we do not consider the potential of a well-made film.
Our standards are different for politicians. Surprisingly, for a society that talks so much about moral prudence, has any Indian politician resigned because he was caught with his pants down? Why is the media mum when it claims to exercise so much pressure on what it considers larger issues? Is this really a private matter when we know that sex makes a politician vulnerable to blackmail? So, is morality in politics all about sex? When a politician, now dead, got young boys and girls to do his bidding, was it only about sex? When a chief minister of a state flaunts his three wives, is it only about sex? When the head of a unit of a political party got into a scandal because of his reported alliance with a folk dancer, for whom he had allegedly purchased a house, was it only about sex? These were gross examples of abuse of power, and that is most certainty a moral issue.
While power makes people blind, it also opens their eyes to a whole wide world where everything is for the asking. And it comes with an inbuilt fear of loss. Politics does not attract the best of people. A peon who is in the habit of having his palms greased, or a spoilt brat who runs over people in his fast cars, or widows suffering from nostalgia, find themselves in fancy positions. The humble farmer begins to feel he has earned his arrogance. Morality goes underground when survival rears whims and fancies of a celluloid star; someone raises a valid bogey of foreign versus Indian not so much due to conviction as his own desperate need to be seen as the powerful son of the soil; in this endeavour he is willing to go digging for bones.
In their enthusiasm to guard their personal positions, do they ever think in terms of morality, the custodians of which they purport to be? Does it make sense for us to say that it is all right for them to covet power so long as they do nothing to jeopardise national security? Is it valid to believe that a vulnerable politician is an inefficient one? Then, is inefficiency a moral issue?
What if a politician’s personal values clash with party diktats? We keep hearing about how certain politicians are nice human beings; these same nice human beings are responsible for sneaking in religion and demoralising society. It is assumed that godliness can camouflage all evil. But as H L Mencken wrote, “The worst government is the most moral. One composed of cynics is often very tolerant and humane. But when fanatics are on top there is no limit to oppression.” The sad thing is the middle-class that hitherto kept a hawk’s eyes vigil has begun to declare that corruption is no longer an issue. ‘Getting things done’ is the new anthem. Does anybody think of nepotism in politics as a moral issue, especially since it is public money that is siphoned off?
For the politician morality is only a garb. In fact, they can sell us nudity as a garment, knowing that we will buy it. In this devious manner they put the onus of shame on us.
Hillary Clinton is doing a neat job of it. The Erin Brockovich prototype, using babies and blackmail (she ain’t talking boobs, though) to open her own family’s can of worms, gaining brownie points by default. It is called getting two for the price of one.
Farzana Versey is the author of the forthcoming book A Journey Interrupted: An Indian Woman in Pakistan, Harper Collins. She can be reached at email@example.com