Column in Business Standard, September 10, 2016
The unbearable uncertainty of bed-hopping has become the stuff of sizzling political scandal in two countries within the space of a few days. In Delhi, former Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) minister Sandeep Kumar, sacked from his job and suspended from the party, is cooling his heels in jail for the alleged rape of a woman constituent. In London, long-standing British Indian Labour MP Keith Vaz has been forced to quit as head of a key parliamentary committee for his clandestine romp with male prostitutes. In both cases smartphone clicks and clips are the main mischief maker, and a salacious, circulation-crazed, agenda-driven media is being reviled. Sex and drugs feature in both stories, as do porn sites and gay dating apps, with loyal wives putting on brave fronts.
However, the similarities end there. In AAP’s case the political fallout has been dreadful. It is subjected to ridicule by former patrons and promoters like Anna Hazare and Yogendra Yadav, sections of the party are up in arms, the political opposition is going hammer and tongs, and a mushroom cloud hovers over Arvind Kejriwal’s election campaign in Punjab. Add to that the piquant sideshow of spokesman Ashutosh’s ill-timed and ill-judged columns on ndtv.com – their main result appears to only enhance the website’s profits.
It is less clear how Mr Vaz’s political career will suffer, or how his party or constituents in Leicester East, 58 per cent of whom are of Asian origin, will face up to the scandal. But imagine if Keith Vaz were an Indian MP – would he stand a chance in a country where regular, rather than illicit, gay sex is legally judged a crime? That tells us something about differing acceptable standards of morality and the private lives of public figures. It is not quite as simple – as Mr Ashutosh hazily informs us – a question of “perception management”.
A great deal has changed in both countries down the years. From the Profumo scandal of the 1960s popularly headlined “The Tarts that Toppled the Tories” to Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe’s ruined career for a homosexual liaison in the 1970s to, more recently, Brexit leader Boris Johnson’s sexual shenanigans that include fathering an illegitimate child with an art consultant, there is, however grudging, a growing tolerance. If there wasn’t, Mr Johnson wouldn’t be foreign secretary today nor Mr Vaz’s committee be considering legalising prostitution and brothel-keeping.
By comparison, the Indian public is less prurient and the media relatively restrained. If it weren’t, all nine minutes of Sandeep Kumar’s act of shame would be in our face instead of appropriately blurred, abbreviated clips. Who today remembers Abhishek Manu Singhvi’s alleged sex tape (he has since been safely reinstated in party and Parliament) or N D Tiwari’s bed-hopping scene and paternity suit or Karnataka MLAs watching porn in the legislature?
Rape is another matter, and the turning point was the Nirbhaya case of December 2012 that shocked the world and brought the nation to a standstill. A major revamp of criminal legislation that radically redefine rape and other forms of sexual violence and harassment are in force but the results have been mixed. Perhaps because more rapes are officially reported, the number of cases are up from 22,172 in 2010 to 36,735 in 2014. But, as the feminist publisher Urvashi Butalia recently pointed out on the basis of an independent study, “the perpetrators of sexual violence almost always get away”.
One reason is the slow ramshackle criminal justice system despite the designation of fast-track courts. Another is that questions of caste, class, public profiles and party politics tend to erode clarity and speedy punishments. BJP leader Dayashankar Singh was summarily sacked and put in jail for calling Dalit leader Mayawati a “prostitute”; that has not prevented AAP’s Sandeep Kumar to ascribe his arrest to an anti-Dalit conspiracy.
High-profile cases of sexual harassment and rape against TERI’s former head R K Pachauri, for instance, or journalist Tarun Tejpal are yet to come to trial. More decisively, a Delhi court recently handed a seven-year jail term to performer and filmmaker Mahmood Farooqui on charges of rape by an American researcher for, among other things, bringing “disrepute” to the country. It’s a case that’s generating considerable heat among feminists and criminal lawyers vehemently debating the ambiguous area between sexual consent and coercion.
It’s unsurprising that the public, known for its short memory, doesn’t dwell for long on the bed-hopping habits of public figures. Politicians may suffer the collateral damage but the shifting fault lines of sexual impropriety, offence and crime are obscured by 50 shades of grey. Till the next film clip or Instagarm appears on your smartphone