People like us tend to get stunned when other people like us talk and act like people like them. People like us believe that people like us are special and different, that they will always act the way people like us talk, as they themselves talked to us at college. We expect them to behave with the same courtesy they accord to other people like us when we meet socially, and live by the standards that people like us are meant to uphold. If only there were more people like us in politics, India would not be run as it is being run now, by people like them.
It is a charming little conceit, a flight of fancy that too often ends in grief.
And indeed, along comes Salman Khurshid, exposing some of that naivete and shattering those illusions. After a video clip emerged last week, which showed him saying, “I was told to work with a pen and was made a law minister. I will work with a pen, but also with blood,” the lines between people like “us” and “them” are getting blurred. Arvind Kejriwal, the maverick muckraking activist-who-always-wanted-to-be-a-politician, astutely picked up those remarks and said that what Khurshid said was a threat to his life; Khurshid said it was no such thing, and that that was not what he meant at all. Those remarks are being misconstrued, he now says. His intent was to show that the good people of Farrukhabad, his constituency, would stand by him.
But how? At least some people in Farrukhabad, the law minister’s constituency, appear to be taking him somewhat literally, and are taking the law in their hands. Khurshid may not have directed those people, nor given any instructions to them, but that has not stopped them from trying to intimidate Abhinandan Mishra, a reporter at The Sunday Guardian.
Mishra was visiting Farrukhabad with an activist of India Against Corruption (Kejriwal’s organization) to look into allegations that the non-governmental organization, Zakir Hussain Memorial Trust, was poorly administered. Camps for the disabled, the intended beneficiaries, were either not being held, or financial grants were not being properly made, Kejriwal has claimed. Khurshid has vehemently denied the charges.
If true, in the grand scheme of India’s corruption scandals, this is petty, penny-pinching thievery. People like us don’t do that. The trust is named after India’s third president, Zakir Hussain, who was a refined, distinguished academic; Khurshid is his grandson, educated at Oxford; his wife Louise Fernandes, former correspondent at Sunday magazine, manages the trust.
Now it may well be that Khurshid is indeed innocent—Indians are notoriously poor record-keepers. But the way to handle the sort of allegations Kejriwal has been making is to rebut them point-by-point calmly, and face an inquiry if one becomes necessary in order to exonerate one’s reputation. Using colourful metaphors and insisting those were only metaphors is risky business, because other people can take a clue from such metaphors and act menacingly, as they try to make those metaphors real. Khurshid still loves metaphors—he has likened Kejriwal’s movement to an ant, and the Congress Party to an elephant. The ant has been biting the elephant, which irritates the elephant; the elephant can crush the ant. Now think of the consequences of someone trying to make that metaphor real.
In Mishra’s case, local thugs threatened him menacingly, following his car on motorcycles, banging on the window of his car, even hurling stones and bricks at the speeding car. When Mishra called a local police official, he was told that he should have informed the authorities before going to such areas. This is Farrukhabad, the law minister’s constituency, and not a war zone.
And Khurshid is the law minister. When people want to take the law in their hands, he is meant to stress the importance of the law taking its course. Khurshid is supposed to help steer legislation to improve access to justice, stand by judges who deliberate over contentious matters, and draft bills to strengthen the rule of law and accountability. Before the law, the ant and the elephant are equal.
The Khurshids may well be innocent of any wrongdoing with regard to the administration of the trust named after Khurshid’s good grandfather. They may also have legitimate reasons to be angry with Kejriwal and his tactics, which at the moment consist of making accusations against many politicians in the hope that some charges will stick, and in the process destroying middle class trust in the political process. Kejriwal’s project may ultimately even fail—Indian politics doesn’t take mavericks too kindly.
But Khurshid is expected to play a higher game, of unstated, assumed norms. He has acted out of the role that people like us are used to seeing him play. But then people like us don’t matter in this equation. People like us haven’t voted him to power. His constituency is Farrukhabad, and they do things differently there.
And for each bribe taken, one is given. Us is them.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com
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