Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Dirty hands 21 October, 2007

When Robert Fullenwider compared politicians to garbage collectors, he did not have the former prime minister of India, Deve Gowda, and his ‘kumara’ in mind. He only meant that we should expect both vocations to stink. On October 3, 2007, however, the stench of Karnataka’s politics made even the most putrid muck smell sweet. On that day Deve Gowda’s son refused to vacate the chief minister’s seat after enjoying power for 20 months and reneged on the commitment to transfer power to its BJP ally. Newspaper headlines screamed ‘betrayal’ and then forgot about it.

My friends in Karnataka tell me that they were not surprised. Deve Gowda has a reputation for betraying friends. Before Yediyurappa, he betrayed Dharam Singh, and prior to that Bangarappa. Earlier he ditched Ramakrishna Hegde to become the astonishing candidate for prime minister. My friends said, ‘what were the BJP fools thinking when they made the deal!’ Deve Gowda remembered suddenly that the BJP was ‘communal’. With this act of treachery he joined the august company of Charan Singh and Devi Lal, who also forced untimely elections on innocent citizens.

How do Karnataka’s proud citizens feel about this act of betrayal? Citizens are vulnerable and they place trust in their rulers. When this trust is betrayed, psychologists tell us that citizens feel angry and in extreme cases suffer from ‘political betrayal trauma’. This happens, for example, when a person is wrongly arrested by the state or a soldier is sent to fight in an unjust war. When a trusted leader, a former prime minister, behaves immorally, the betrayal can be as devastating as a spouse’s infidelity.

Lest the children of my Kanadiga friends grow up thinking that this is how grownups should behave—break promises and betray friends--I want to remind them of Karna in the Mahabharata. When Karna discovers his real mother and realises that he is on the wrong side in the war, he refuses to switch sides. He has given his word to Duryodhana and he must be loyal to his commitment. He adds that one’s identity is not determined by birth but by upbringing (a nice thing to remember in these casteist times). Thus, he does not exchange his adopted, low born parents for genetic royal ones. His own charioteer, Shalya, on the other hand, is in Deve Gowda’s mould, and has no problem in betraying Karna.

Ever since Sartre’s play, Dirty Hands, we have got used to thinking that our politicians are exempt from the moral rules that apply to us in private life. The vocation of politics requires one to have ‘dirty hands’ for public figures must fulfill an impartial role, which authorizes them to use violence forbidden to individuals. If I stick a gun to a rich man to collect Rs 20,000 from his pocket, I am guilty of robbery. But when P Chidambaram collects Rs 20,000 from me to improve schools, it is an education cess. Thomas Nagel, the philosopher, makes this point forcefully. Is this why the world forgave President Truman, with dirty hands, for dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima?

A fresher feeling of betrayal is what many Indians will feel if the Indo-US nuclear treaty is aborted. Worried over Pakistan’s military alliance with China, they will consider the national interest betrayed for political expediency, not only by the Congress but also by the BJP (the party that achieved the initial rapprochement with America). Perhaps it is true--politicians must have dirty hands. But unlike Deve Gowda, Manmohan Singh was supposed to have hands as clean as Mahatma Gandhi’s. Hence, the sorrow will be greater.

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