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The clean chit factor

February 12, 2004

It has been more than a decade now, and that's an awfully long time in politics. Sometimes, when the conversation turns to former prime ministers, I ask people about Rajiv Gandhi. In many respects, he was the most complex figure to have held that high office.

He was a pre-liberalization liberalizer, taking steps that appear fashionable today but were merely necessary in his time. Equally, he was also the original 'India Shining' guy you could easily associate with flaky television advertising at taxpayer expense to promote his own image. He was quite likely the worst of the 'pseudo-secularists,' who equated his pandering to the Muslim right with genuine regard for minorities. At the same time, he was also among the more 'presentable' faces of India -- forward-looking, modern, even funny.

How does one square all that? A number of people don't recall that he was booted out from office; instead they believe that his tenure as prime minister was cut short tragically by the suicide bombers from across the straits. Some of this is just bad memory, but I think some of this also reflects the ambiguity with which we've come to see him over the years, as well as an element of sympathy for all death. The only consistent view of Rajiv that has held up since his assassination is that he was too politically naive, and easily led by the coterie around him -- sometimes to grave error, and at other times to quite likeable action.

Now, more than a dozen years past, the Delhi high court has weighed in on an important part of our memory of the former prime minister. Its opinion is that 16 years of investigation by the nation's premier investigation agency has failed to offer any evidence that Rajiv Gandhi ever accepted illegal gratification for the award of the defense contract to the defense firm Bofors -- the company's name has since changed to Kartongen Kemi Ochi Forvaltning AB. The Hinduja brothers, who were fellow accused in this case, must now face the charge of conspiring to cheat the Government of India, but Rajiv got the famous clean chit.

You remember the clean chit, don't you? There have been so many issued in the last few years that it can be difficult to keep track of them. Want to buy a submarine from a company that doesn't exist? No problem, there's a clean chit for that. Want to play for India, but be paid by Pakistan on the side? There's one for that too. Want to buy a legislator's vote? You guessed it -- clean chit again. Want to knock down a place of worship? Ditto. In fact, we should dispense with the rupee and get straight to exchanging clean chits; by all accounts the latter are far more valuable.

The last clean chit I remember is the pesticides-in-colas one. A scientific laboratory conducted tests on popular beverages and concluded that they are laced with pesticides and therefore unfit for human consumption. The government issued a clean chit to the manufacturers in such haste that even a few of those who might have given the companies a small benefit of their doubt in fact concluded that they must be full of pesticides, and that the appropriate levers in government had been cranked to say otherwise.

Understandably, Coke instead launched its second prong -- an endorsement by Aamir Khan that pooh-poohs scientific testing and instead assures the people that his own test -- simply drinking the cola -- is enough to ascertain the drink's safety. Sure, everyone knows this has consequences -- a few people will stop watching Aamir Khan movies, a few others will question his loyalty to the Indian public interest, still others will look upon advertisers and the media with renewed disdain, etc. But the betting is that the overwhelming majority of the people will laugh at the convincing Bengali or Nepali imitation, and return to their familiar dinner-table habits.

The key thing in all these is to understand is the relationship between behavior and perceptions. Will everyone who thinks colas contain pesticides refrain from drinking them anymore until the issue is resolved? Will everyone who thinks Indian cricket selectors and players are on the take stop watching games on television? Will everyone who thinks George Fernandes sold out the armed services, or Narasimha Rao undermined the legislative process, or L K Advani is responsible for the Babri Masjid's demolition, vote against the parties of these politicians, or even the individuals themselves?

Of course not. In public relations, the clean chit is a conscience ticket. It allows the accused to claim he was cleared of the charges, and others to maintain their support for and faith in the accused despite evidence to the contrary. Occasionally, some good may come of the whole thing, but thus far no one is holding his breath in anticipation. Clean chits won't mean much until some others that nail the wrong-doers are also issued.

Also in the news on the same day as Rajiv Gandhi's exoneration, a Joint Parliamentary Committee headed by Sharad Pawar has accepted the findings of the Centre for Science and Environment in the pesticides issue, and called for stringent regulation of the beverages industry to ensure human and environmental health. The companies' arguments -- that only raw materials and not finished products should be regulated, that the fault lies with poor water quality, and that franchisees and not the brand owners are to blame -- were all rejected by the committee. It's not clear what this committee thought of the clean chit that Sushma Swaraj handed out when the controversy first broke.

So, how about that Aamir Khan movie? Or a toast -- Coke, perhaps -- to Parliament's new position on pesticides in our drinks?

That's the way it is with Rajiv too. The Congress party will likely feel a slight lifting of the weight on its shoulders today, but that's just its conscience ticket being punched up. The former prime minister's guilt will remain hostage to the public's view of many other things -- media management by political parties, the effectiveness and honesty of investigating agencies; things like that. Verdicts of criminal innocence and guilt are rightly reserved for the courts, but for anything more than that, one can only expect to reap what one has sowed. In Rajiv's case, that expectation was fulfilled on the day he was forced out of office by the widespread perception of his conduct.

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Ashwin Mahesh

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