Why personal attacks in political discourse should be acceptable

What’s the worst that can happen if the private lives of opposing politicians became fair game?

The Samajwadi Party that normally sets benchmarks for political indecency and lawlessness has suddenly become the beacon of propriety by declaring that the party will not participate in the ongoing mudslinging in the wake of the controversy surrounding Narendra Modi’s wife.

Narendra Modi’s “abandoned” wife is an open secret — but ever since he has mentioned her as his wife in his poll affidavit all hell seems to have broken loose. From opposition politicians and news anchors to columnists to intellectuals everybody seems to be trapped in the web of this conundrum: how can a person care for an entire nation when he cannot take care of his own wife? Yesterday one of the news channels known for broadcasting hyperbolic debates had a renowned journalist articulating his thoughts on Modi’s marriage with such a grim expression as if the sort of meteor that wiped off the dinosaurs was on its way to hit the planet again. No, this article is not about Modi’s married-or-not-married controversy; it is about the hypocrisy surrounding this business of not raking up the private lives of our illustrious and upright politicians.

The situation has gone to such a bizarre extent that people want their political opponents prosecuted, arrested and if possible, even hanged but what sort of murky lives they live suddenly becomes a matter of privacy that should be left alone. Get a person incarcerated for life, but don’t hit him or her below the belt by bringing up marital discords, multiple spouses, illegitimate progenies and other familial problems.

You see, politicians and their coterie of party hoppers are a cozy group. They abuse each other during the day but as the evening descends they want to retrieve into their comfortable coves with their favourite scotch, cigars and for some, rum. Ideological differences are blurred, journalistic confrontations are ignored and everybody becomes “good friends”. They share anecdotes, good music, light-hearted bantering and exchange tips even if until a few hours ago they were at each other’s throats. This bonhomie may confound the casual observer who must think that these people are constantly baying for each other’s blood, whether it’s night or day. It’s not like that.

Professional and personal lives are very conveniently kept separate, and this “understanding” certainly has big dividends. But is this “understanding” good for the public whose strings of destiny these politicians, bureaucrats and intellectuals control?

Take the case of that famous politician in the incumbent government who was caught on camera doing unsavoury things with an aspiring judge. The video went viral on the Internet and many lamented saying that it was a personal affair and people shouldn’t meddle. Why not? And why does it become a personal affair when an influential politician is seeking carnal favours from another person who wants to be a judge? What sort of a person is making our laws and what sort of a person is pronouncing judgements on other people? Are these people supposed to decide how we are going to live our lives?

You may say that this is an aberration and not all the cases are so extreme and you may be right but the point is, the excuse of keeping politics and private life separate is used simply as a safeguard because beyond a certain point, all politicians and their cohorts live less than ideal lives and if these lifestyles are discussed publicly, the consequences may actually be grave for them.

When Tejpal was arrested a seasoned journalist tweeted that she may had had professional differences with him but personally they were very good friends and so she would never speak ill of him. How can you be friends with someone you constantly accuse of running antinational agendas, colluding with antinational elements and that his “impeccable” journalistic talents are only applied against one particular political party? In situations when you actually feel that a person is harming the nation, how can you keep personal and professional feelings separate (irrespective of whether all these accusations are correct or not)? There has to be something deeper than that.

It’s a sense of self-preservation. When it comes to major political parties and public personalities , whether they are in power or not, they constantly wield power. Unless things really escalate, not even their lifestyles change. They might not be in a position to orchestrate mega-scams but they enjoy their share of privileges and excesses. If they start raking up each other’s personal lives, this is the foundation that will begin to shake.

That’s why they have drawn a line that yes, publicly even if they appear as foes, by the end of the day, they are in it together. There are regular soiries and Iftar parties where people mingle from all political and ideological colours. There is reciprocal backscratching. Favours are exchanged. Even critical help is provided at crucial points. Remember how Maneka Gandhi was sacked overnight because she was doing some investigation that would have made Sonia Gandhi uncomfortable?

So no matter how sanguine the political rhetoric goes, they don’t cross the Laxman Rekha and whenever that Lakshman Rekha is crossed, counter threats are issued — “we also have your dark secrets so don’t you dare”. Modi has been hounded out of his wits simply because he doesn’t seem to have such self-preservative tendencies and consequently, might act ruthlessly while doing what he feels should be done irrespective of who is who. Precisely this is why even people from within his party are leaving no stone unturned to make sure he doesn’t get a comfortable majority.

What’s the worst that can happen if the private lives of opposing politicians became fair game? You may say that the discourse will plummet to a new low but then the good thing will be, the politicians, who sometimes just act to be enemies, will actually become enemies and this will help the general public. The stakes will suddenly become real and the illusion of “old buddies” will be shattered. The supporters of the BJP would like to know if there are backroom dealings with the Congress and the AAP. The AAP supporters would like to know what’s cooking between the Congress and the BJP behind the doors. The Congress supporters would like to know with what shady outfits their party colludes. The general public would like to know whether their politicians sitting on the opposition benches are actually in the opposition or simply pretending to be.

The private lives of our lawmakers are of public concern because they affect us all — their one act can impact our multiple generations.. We are entitled to know what sort of personal lives they lead because practically, no one can be Mister Jekyll and Mister Hyde without one personality stumbling into another.

But what about their right to privacy? Well, you can call it an occupational hazard.

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