Minority report | Private unlimited


Minority report | Private unlimited

Last week, after news of Congress leader Digvijay Singh’s relationship with television anchor Amrita Rai surfaced, TV news channel CNN-IBN’s Rajdeep Sardesai made it a subject of prime time debate.

Should a politician’s private life become a public issue, he asked, reopening a relevant and entertaining question—a favourite anyway inside Indian news studios.

“Is there a hypocrisy where film stars are considered easy game, their private lives written about endlessly but we hold ourselves back when it comes to politicians?” questioned Sardesai. Using Singh’s own (misplaced) comparisons of his candidness with the denial-dyed one of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) Narendra Modi, who has reportedly hidden his legally valid marriage of many years from the public until recently, Sardesai asked if such stories deserved to be on the front page of newspapers.

Besides Manushi’s founder-editor and now (BJP) member Madhu Kishwar, politician Jaya Jaitly and activist and Congress member Nafisa Ali Sodhi, I was on the panel, too. Inviting Jaitly was prudent and, as Sardesai pointed out on the show, she had herself been under similar scrutiny in the past.

As a journalist who believes that the media must change and adapt to the times instead of speaking from a pulpit of morality that suited the journalism of the sixties, I said these stories needed front-page mentions. For different reasons: Modi’s because he is a prime ministerial candidate stashing away a fundamental fact of his life. And Singh’s because, unlike the dozens of politicians who have denied controversial private lives in the face of material and moral evidence, he is being straightforward.

Singh is a widower but Rai’s divorce is still to come through, which gives the acceptance of this relationship a shade of honesty over social anxiety about right or wrong.

I am not a fan of Singh. But against former Congress member N.D Tiwari’s disgusting denial about fathering a son from an extramarital alliance (and later accepting it), or ex-Haryana deputy chief minister Chander Mohan’s self-serving conversion to Islam to marry Anuradha Bali, followed by separation, union, again separation from her, creating an emotional and political fiasco which ended tragically with Bali’s death, Singh’s stand is forthright.

Tiwari and Mohan are just two easy-to-recall examples of desperately dishonest politicians—we know of many others. Just as they should be exposed each time they utter an untruth, the forthright ones also need a mention so that we remember the difference.

In the same week, the passing away of Rajkumari Kaul, the long-time companion of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the lady known as the “most known unofficial other half”, came as a reminder of the dignity personal relationships acquire when they are “accepted”—especially as wordlessly as Vajpayee’s was.

How the media reports and presents such stories should be a bigger concern than whether they deserve coverage or not—a point I had raised in this column when Congress member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor’s late wife Sunanda Pushkar’s tweets about their marital life (and assorted Twitter comments) made it to the front pages of some newspapers.

In that case, editorial judgements in choosing what to run appeared debatable even if the story itself was a piece of our times.

It was while driving back after Sardesai’s show that it struck me that the media could be as modern as it wants, but the morality matrix of sections of the audience may take time to adapt.

The studio’s driver, a well-spoken 42-year-old man, a father of three daughters, who’s been driving cabs for the last 20 years, expressed his disillusionment over corruption, the death of bhaichara (brotherhood) and lack of safety especially for women in Delhi.

“The show was about Digvijay Singh, right ma’am?” he asked, opening a revealing conversation.

While he found Modi’s refusal to acknowledge his wife inappropriate for a man promising to take care of the nation, for Singh he had strong words of disapproval.

“What could that young lady have seen in him?” he fretted, adding that for him a constant worry was that his daughters may get entrapped in relationships with powerful men who promise the moon to innocent girls, then jilt them on personal whims.

“No exchange of vows or celebrations for my girls till a court marriage is registered and a share of property, however small, is legally apportioned to them,” he said.

His pragmatic deduction is just one more reason why the personal lives of politicians must make it to public consciousness. Who knows what lessons lie in them for those who we don’t even “target” as our readers?