Why chastise those who speak their mind?

Why chastise those who speak their mind?
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First Published: Thu, May 13 2010. 09 13 PM IST

Guilty: Ramesh’s words weren’t scripted. Vijay Kumar Joshi / PTI
Guilty: Ramesh’s words weren’t scripted. Vijay Kumar Joshi / PTI
Updated: Thu, May 13 2010. 09 13 PM IST
I’ve always been attracted to dysfunctional men. My husband calls it the Himalayan Mountain Man syndrome. But this description doesn’t do these guys justice. I like the strong silent types well enough, but I also like the intense emotional artistic ones who pour their wounded hearts—and opinions—out in public, and if possible, before the entire Chinese cabinet. You know where this is going, right?
Guilty: Ramesh’s words weren’t scripted. Vijay Kumar Joshi / PTI
The comedienne Sarah Silverman would deliver the above lines very well. As would Bangalore’s Rubi Chakravarti for that matter, with perfect comic timing. So, as a matter of hope, would I.
French singer Serge Gainsbourg was famous for this kind of emotional and verbal display. He reportedly appeared on television, totally drunk, and proceeded to tell the anchor who was interviewing him that he wanted to sleep with her. The word he used was much more specific but you get the picture.
As a private citizen, I can say all of the above and nobody will care. One of the joys of being a civilian in a democracy is anonymity. You can speak your mind with insouciance, suffer ignominies and lick your wounds in private. You can eat French fries all day, sleep around, get sloshed, and do all those juvenile things that middle-aged people fantasize about—and screwball comedies such as The Hangover and Knocked Up bring to life. Speaking of which, watch out for the upcoming comedy film, Cyrus, starring the hilarious Jonah Hill, who ought to be better known than he is.
The politicians who represent us don’t have these luxuries. Once you become a public figure, you forego freewheeling wit and flirty banter for tortured, measured boilerplate sentences that are weighty but meaningless to the average voter. The cleverest ones are those, like Barack Obama, who play to the script but add a line at the end to make the whole thing seem original and from the heart—like that throwaway line in his victory speech on election night: “Sasha and Malia, you’ve earned the new puppy...,” which was probably scripted anyway.
Minister Jairam Ramesh’s remarks in China were not scripted, and he has been suitably chastised for them. Why do we do this? We are so quick to rap the knuckles of politicians who commit lesser crimes but unable to do anything about those that rampage on a massive scale. Bill Clinton got impeached because of a silly sex scandal. George Bush, meanwhile, waged a senseless war that killed hundreds of thousands, and spent billions of dollars to search for weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist in the first place. His punishment: He got re-elected. The UPA government is quick to condemn Shashi Tharoor and Ramesh but seems unable to contain the murky dealings of telecom minister A. Raja, which, if true, would make Ramesh’s remarks seem like a kindergarten joke. The problem is that it is hard to prove a Rs60,000 crore telecom scam but easy to pull up a minister who speaks in public, and in front of the media to boot. Ramesh, in a sense, shot himself in the foot.
Now, a penitent Ramesh has to go from home ministry to PM’s office to seeking an audience with Sonia Gandhi to explain and apologize. To think that this whole thing is about embarrassment; about losing face. Sociologists say that “high-context” cultures such as China, Japan, Korea and India are more sensitive to the whole notion of “saving face”, which in a sense is as much about stance as it is about substance.
The West is not so prickly. Ramesh’s remarks would have caused barely a ripple in France, Australia, New Zealand, America, or even Italy, where Silvio Berlusconi’s soap opera doesn’t even cause people to break a step. The same is true for France’s Sarkozy and Bruni and their affairs. The Western world doesn’t condemn celebrities and politicians who speak their mind. Quite the opposite. It is fashionable nowadays to let it all hang out and America has become an expert at it. Philandering politicians talk about the marriage counselling and therapy that they are undergoing. Their wives write tell-all memoirs. Those with drug problems confess their woes, and state earnestly that they are talking about depression, drug use and suicide attempts so lesser mortals can learn from them. Contrast that with China and India. Indian politicians do none of this. The Indian public doesn’t seem to care as much about the private lives of our elected officials. A minister isn’t judged because he has a long-standing mistress. Rather, he is judged if he speaks out of context.
I, for one, think we should move on. Minister Chidambaram can extract his apology: He appears to be someone who hates to lose face anyhow. Prime Minister Singh should do what he did best: stealth reform. Now, he seems overly caught up with reining in erring students like a good schoolteacher. But the best schoolteachers intuited what President John F. Kennedy wrote about in his memoirs. Writing about the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy wrote that one of the six lessons he learned was, “Don’t humiliate your opponent.” Or a high-spirited student; or for that matter, a high-spirited junior politician.
Singh should let Ramesh off the hook this time. The UPA government has a scant few years left and in the grand scheme of governing, this is merely a blip. It provides fodder for hacks like me but that’s about it. Move on, Mr Prime Minister.
Shoba Narayan is worried about a lot of things but losing face is not one of them. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, May 13 2010. 09 13 PM IST