(The writer acknowledges the invaluable inputs of the Helsinki Bureau)
The news that Finland’s foreign minister Ilkka Kanerva has lost his job after sending 200 raunchy SMS messages to an erotic dancer drives another nail in to the stereotype of boring old Scandinavia. The dancer, Johanna Tukiainen (which roughly translates as Jo-Ann Subsidy) was bombarded with undiplomatic messages from the Foreign Minister. Finnish erotic dancers are a tolerant lot, but 200 messages was pushing it. At some point she decided she’d had enough of the dirty messages. No more Subsidy. The stuff found its way into the press and the minister found his out of the cabinet
Why am I concerned? I’m always connected to Finland and carry around a piece of it with me most times when I’m awake. I’m amongst that vast mass of Indians — 70 per cent of all cell-phone users in the country — who swear by Nokia. Indians also rule the world in their use of SMS and have founded a whole new language, singularly vulgar and un-aesthetic, for that facility. But sometimes, our record-setting proclivities are outclassed. And it’s a bit hurtful to the ego when that comes from a nation whose population is less than the number of passengers using Mumbai’s suburban trains on any day of the year.
But Finland, it must be conceded, has been breaking the Boring, Snoring Scandinavian stereotype. Indians are fond of colourful politicians and elect lots of ’em to ensure a steady supply. But we still haven’t managed a Foreign Minister who’s been sacked for sending 200 raunchy messages to an erotic dancer like dear Ilkka has. Our own foreign minister, Pranab Mukherjee, probably never sent out a text message from a cell phone in his life and is unlikely to know how to. If he did, it is improbable he knows any erotic dancers to send them to. The generation that does this kind of thing is still mostly (though not entirely) in high school and undergraduate courses.
Kanerva had not been foreign minister long when he was already being praised by the Finnish right wing as the country’s best foreign minister ever. His “social skills” are said to have brought a smile even to the scornful lips of Condi Rice, who was much more sour in her meetings with his predecessor Erkki Tuomioja. Poor Erkki was weaker on the social skills, though stronger on foreign policy issues.
Kanerva’s expertise in dirty messages goes back some way, having earlier been caught at it when he was first deputy speaker of the Finnish parliament some years ago. But the discarded foreign minister is not downcast. He has announced he looks ahead to the future and cares little for the past, especially the very recent past. Indeed, he says, he seeks new challenges. One wonders who the poor girl will be.
Score: Finland 4. India 1
Our Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, has achieved many extraordinary things, including switching his lifelong views in the space of a year when he embraced the brave new world of market fundamentalism in 1991. Just before he became Finance Minister that year, he had been member secretary of the South Commission whose report, a scathing indictment of World Bank-IMF policies, bears his signature. Months later, he was implementing the policies he had shredded. No mean record.
But we are still to have a Prime Minister who sues his former internet lover for invasion of privacy. “Huh? Privacy? What’s that?” The concept would intrigue Indian PMs tripping over TV cameras at breakfast. Even if they got their teeth in to that one, the notion of internet lovers picked up in chat room chaos would baffle and drive them into early retirement.
But not the Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen (whose name unkind critics translate as “Little Old Man”). He found his lady love Susan (whose present surname ‘Ruusunen’ roughly translates as “Rosebud”) on the internet and was even pleased to make the happy liaison public. For a while. After endless media interviews, the cybercutie said she would like to marry him. Maybe he resented this introduction of the mundane into an otherwise avant garde affair. He sent her a rude SMS — the hallmark of the new Finn Politician — spelling out finis to their fling.
In fact it was only the beginning. Rosebud’s memories duly flowered into a book titled “Prime Minister’s Bride.” The prime minister sued the publisher, the public prosecutor dragged Rosebud into the case, fashioning a regular bed of thorns and all. Last heard, the Little Old Man had lost the case in the lower court and was proceeding to a higher one. The jury was hung 2-2 which means the complaint could not stand. That the two lay members favoring the defendant were middle-aged males, that one of them was an activist of the main opposition party, and that the defendant was a beautiful Rosebud, I am assured, had no bearing at all on the outcome. (‘Ruusunen’ — aka Rosebud — is the Finnish equivalent of Princess Aurora or the “Sleeping Beauty.”)
Rosebud blooms, but not her book. It appears to be sinking without a trace, taking its startling revelations with it (We learn to our horror from its pages that the Prime Minister loves oven baked potatoes, hates onions and garlic and eats veg pizza..) The public no longer find it fun and have moved on to the more edifying Kanerva case. There, at least, a book of templates for raunchy SMS messages based on the internal affairs of the foreign minister might sell.
You’ve got to hand it to Vanhanen, though. He is nothing if not candid. He defended himself nobly last week at a large gathering of journalists in a seminar discussing media ethics and other equally improbable phenomena. How the heck, he wanted to know, was a bachelor like him to date, anyway? If he’d kept it a secret, he grumbled, the journalists would have driven him crazy nosing around. On the other hand, he pointed out, making it public only led them to accusing him of ‘building an image’ for himself.
The media are now into panel discussions on how bachelor prime ministers should date. There is even some sympathy for the Little Old Man’s stand and his recent experiences. What are chat rooms and technology for, anyway?
But there is hope for Rosebud’s book, too. It turns out her publisher had removed the more sexually explicit SMS messages of the prime minister from the manuscript. These, it is reported, will now be published in Sweden, thereby sparing Finnish media the heartburn of excessive ethical pondering. Once out in Sweden, they can be safely reproduced at home with fewer legal problems. It’s a wise Finnish tradition and perverse media version of the Stockholm Syndrome. In the old days, stuff criticising Soviet influence in Finnish politics was not easily published in the media. It first appeared in Sweden and was then quoted as “The Swedish media says”
Finland 4. India 0
The last time I was in Brussels I was pleased to find that my humble low-grade credit card was accepted (I didn’t use it though, because I had no money) while that of the EU’s Finnish Vice-President was rejected (apparently, he didn’t have the money either). Since, unlike him, I was not entertaining a large number of guests in a very expensive restaurant at the time, I was spared the mortification of rejection. I have no idea how he coped with it. Maybe he sought counselling — but the shrink would surely have demanded cash payment.
India 0.5 Finland 0
Finland has come of age and broken the unexciting Scandinavian cliché. I’m personally happy about this because I knew it was an unfair one. I love the place because it’s a lovely country and my oldest friends in Europe are from there. And they were and are anything but boring.
One of them, a journalist, drove me–quite safely I might add–across thousands of miles in Scandinavia in hostile weather. “That was really good,” I praised him at the end of it. “You drove so well, I relaxed and was asleep much of the time.”
“So was I,” he told me, cheerfully and belched. I have never fallen asleep in a car again. He continues unabashed, his own tank a match for any SUV’s though they fill up differently. He was amongst the first to discover beer as a bio-fuel.
He also spent three years in India, leaving behind an unpaid telephone bill that looks like the Bear Sterns bailout. He insists he had no dues and liabilities pending. The unhappy telephone company is in no position to say the same for itself.
Another dear one, a Finnish documentary filmmaker of planetary fame (whose name I cannot at the moment recall, though he keeps popping up in India) has given me enough stories for several best-sellers. Unlike “The Prime Minister’s Bride,” believe you me, these would sell. It intrigues me that my friend could make multiple films on churches on the one hand–with virtuous organs playing softly in the background — and lead such an un-Christian life on the other. One day in Budapestbut enough, buy my book when it’s out.
And a favorite Professor in Tampere who forced me to bathe in the Gulf of Finland at 4 degrees Celsius, having baked me in Dante’s Inferno first. This was ages before Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo earned the reputations they did.
Oh yes, the boring stereotype is dead. Foreign Minister Kanerva just wrote its obit while keying in his own to Subsidy.