(This column, discussing privacy issues arising from a recent big-money corruption scandal in India, was published in DNA edition dated November 24, 2010.)
Tamil Nadu’s former chief minister and leader of the Dravidian movement C.N. Annadurai once invoked an earthy, racy metaphor to illustrate the puritanical protocol that ought to govern official ‘secrets’.
The red tape that binds a government file, he said, is like the drawstring of a chaste wife’s petticoat: only one person – the minister (or, in the other instance, the husband) – must enjoy rights to tug at that drawstring and gain privileged access to what lies beneath.
After last week’s embarrassing expose of what lies beneath the inner vestments of governmental surveillance dossiers on the 2G spectrum scandal, the inheritors of Annadurai’s Dravidian mantle – the DMK led by M. Karunanidhi – stand revealed as naked peddlers of power for pelf.
The records also show that a whole host of others – from industrial houses to enormously influential political lobbyists – were gaming the system to their advantage. And media stars, for all their protestations, were complicit in these power games, crossing the Lakshman Rekha that divides the dispassionate observer from the active participant. At the very least, they were playing the role of a carrier-pigeon fluttering between the power players; at worst, they were using their media megaphone to influence public opinion on behalf of interested players. The fig-leaf that they claim hides their shame – that they were merely gathering information in pursuit of their journalistic ends – has blown away in the late November autumnal breeze.
This isn’t of course the first time that the course of Dravidian politics in Tamil Nadu and the exertions of Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy have yielded answers to that eternal question: petticoat ke peeche kya hai?
In an earlier avatar, Swamy’s dogged exposure of scandals involving Karunanidhi’s arch rival Jayalalithaa incensed her so much that she orchestrated one of the most bizarrely below-the-belt protest campaigns ever. Whenever Swamy appeared in public, a troupe of Amazonian AIADMK women cadres owing allegiance to Jayalalithaa would surround him and hoist their saris waist high, evidently to subject him to some form of personal or political humiliation. Let’s just say that if the women had all been government files, there would have been no official secret left unrevealed. Swamy, however, wasn’t easily intimidated, and carried on – on the strength of survival skills they probably don’t teach at Harvard.
Years earlier, Jayalalithaa herself had claimed sensationally that she had been “disrobed” in Draupadi-esque fashion inside the Tamil Nadu Assembly. And on another of those occasions that mark the State Assembly as a particularly august legislative chamber, an MLA made a forceful (but indeterminable) political point by hoisting his dhoti and – as a newspaper account of the day delicately put it – “displaying his wares.”
Much media angst has been expended in agonising over the manifest breach of privacy arising from the release in the public domain of tapped telephone conversations involving the power players. That concern is not without basis, and the realisation that telephone tapping is perhaps rather more widespread than we realise is intensely sobering for those with a liberal bent of mind.
But when shady shenanigans go on in our power circles, the only defence for ordinary folks is to draw the curtain back occasionally to reveal what precisely goes on in the name of governance. Just this once, give thanks that someone somewhere – for some motive that isn’t clear yet – tugged at the drawstring of this political petticoat, and showed us some truly unsightly goings-on.