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April 28, 1998


Pritish Nandy

The Power of Villainy

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In the fifty years since India became free, we have notched up some spectacular successes. We have also notched up some truly obscene failures. But, then, a nation is known for its successes, not its failures.

That is why billions of dollars of American investment are entering China every year despite its shameful human rights record. Despite its ugly underbelly of corruption and crime. The reason is simple: The world moves ahead on greed. No one has the time any more for those who protest, complain, argue or bitch. Life is on a roll. Everyone desperately needs to get ahead. Politicians, investment bankers, industrialists, stock brokers. The people who rule over our lives today.

That is why I find so curious our national obsession with politics.

For five decades now, politics has been the bane of our lives. It has produced some of the most wicked, corrupt, sleazy and talentless people in our recent history. People we would have had no time for, were they not politicians. For every Jayaprakash Narayan who came up, to fight historical wrongs inflicted upon the Indian people, we have had a thousand Buta Singhs, Sukh Rams, Bansi Lals, Chiman Mehtas, Satish Sharmas, Janaki Ballav Patnaiks, Shiela Kauls. People who gave Indian politics a filthy name. Yet, every morning when you open your newspaper, the headlines are always hijacked by politics and politicians.

Check it out and you will know what I mean. Even the most irrelevant bit of speculative news in politics (what may have happened or could happen, not what actually happened) gets far more prominence in our media than the real achievements of modern India. Take a look at the front page of your newspaper, check out the news bulletins on television and you will agree with what I say.

Even on the day Sachin Tendulkar won the Sharjah Cup for India with a spectacular demonstration of superlative cricket that won him encomiums in the world press as the greatest player after Bradman -- that is the finest batsman in sixty years of cricket -- his victory did not make the headlines. It was edged out by an entirely speculative story on how painful the next Budget may turn out to be. There were no facts to buttress the story. Only a stray comment by the finance minister at a FICCI meeting. The rest, nudge, nudge, wink, wink stuff.

Last Friday, this year's Miss India, Lymaraina D'Souza went to Honolulu to make a bid for the Miss Universe crown, after three Indian girls had stormed the world of beauty pageants in the past three years and walked away with the crowns. But guess who got the headlines? Three unknown politicians -- M Thambi Durai, R Janarthanan and R K Kumar -- none of whom you may have heard of, except as part of Jayalalitha's circus. They seized the headlines by telling a Cabinet colleague of theirs to shut up or get out. This was in response to the headline story of the day before, where Hegde (who has barely three MPs in Parliament) attacked their leader and called her silly names.

Three years back, Sushmita Sen was crowned Miss Universe and Aishwarya Rai, Miss World in the same year (an unmatched double in the history of beauty pageants) and, last year, defying every law of probability, Diana Hayden went on to become Miss World again. Some of us may think that winning beauty titles is no great deal but, surely, it is a more significant achievement than winning an ugly slanging match in politics. Yet this year's contestant, following in the wake of a spectacular run, gets an inside page picture while Amma's chamchas hog the headlines with their hysteric outbursts.

Note the amazing strides made by Vishwanathan Anand during the past year and check it out whether he has ever got a front page headline. Even when he defeated all the Grandmasters at Linares last and stormed into the World No 2 slot -- after winning the toughest contests in the chess hemisphere -- at Belgrade, Groningen, Wijk Aan Zee and Linares -- he barely managed to get a small box on the front page. Rabri Devi alone has grabbed more square kilometres on the front page of our newspapers over the past one year than he will get in his entire lifetime.

When Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize, did she get the frontpage headline? No. Did she get the second headline or the third? No. She got a small box in most newspapers and a bottom of the page anchor story in a few. Laxmi Mittal gets the same treatment, even though in less than a decade he has emerged as the richest Asian in Britain and its third richest citizen through brilliant financial leveraging and corporate legerdemain. The results of Reliance or Maruti or ITC or Hindustan Lever -- some of our top performers in the current bleak scenario of Indian industry -- get small mentions on the front page while the peccadilloes of the lowest grade politician hog the headlines. Invariably undeservingly so.

Analjit Singh did not get a front page mention in most mainstream newspapers when he sold his 41 per cent stake in Hutchison Max last Friday for Rs 5.61 billion, in the largest ever acquisition deal in our corporate history. Even the Narasimhan Committee's report on banking sector reforms, which made recommendations which will launch Indian banking into the next millennium, barely got a three column headline on the frontpage on the same day, while a story about a BJP minister's bodyguard beating up a doctor at the municipal hospital at Ghatkopar got a huge, four column anchor.

While these are a few stray examples, the point I am making is simple. Why do our achievements in every area of life and endeavour get outshone by our single most prominent area of shame -- our politics? Why does our politics grab the media, grab our mindshare, our reluctant attention day after day? Loathsome leaders; corrupt MPs; thieving ministers; ugly, despicable louts and historysheeters masquerading as netas; blackmailers; extortionists; thugs. Why do these people hijack our attention again and again and again? Always for the wrong reasons.

This is what institutionalises crime. Legitimises it. This is what attracts the worst among us to politics. The fact that they get their one shining moment of glory when they enter politics. Arun Gawli leapt from page 5 to page 1 the moment he entered politics. So did Raja Bhaiya in UP. Rabri Devi went from her kitchen into the national headlines. Phoolan Devi, from her cell in Tihar jail. Chandra Swami painted all his crimes with different political colours.

It is the Lennon syndrome at work. Do something utterly despicable -- kill someone famous, loot a bank, cheat the nation, set fire to a Harijan village, badmouth another politician -- and you can bask in the glory of national headlines. You are the flavour of the day, the week, the season. Newspapers will frontpage you. television news bulletins will chase you. Your chamchas will fete you. And, if you are lucky, weak and feeble governments will reach out to you for your support.

No wonder the scum of the world is in politics today.

This is the only way you can be more popular than Shah Rukh Khan, richer than Laxmi Mittal, sexier than Sushmita Sen, more swashbuckling than Sachin Tendulkar, smarter than Viswanathan Anand, cleverer than Arundhati Roy, more respected than Mother Teresa, more famous than Abdul Kalam. For doing nothing apart from making a stupid, vainglorious spectacle of yourself.

This is the power of sheer villainy. And we all add to it in our own stupid ways, by succumbing to its glamour.

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