City City Bang Bang, Columns

A very private citizen

It would appear that there is only one person in India who is a private citizen, for that label does not get used to describe anyone else. It feels like a pretty special category, for it certainly comes with a lot of privileges. These have been well documented, and foregoing the perverse pleasures of dwelling on some of these, it might be worthwhile to focus instead on the underlying premise of the defence that the Congress is offering and examine it within the context the prevailing political culture of the day.

The label of private citizen seeks to make a distinction between the public and private in order to extract a certain immunity from scrutiny that being a public officer automatically invites. This would mean while a public officer would be accountable for her actions and would have to explain, if asked about for instance, why a certain sum was spent or why a particular vendor was chosen, a private citizen, going about her normal course of business, would a have right to do as she pleased, including making choices that were patently irrational as long as no law was broken. Private citizens need offer no explanation for being stupid, craven or crass, for that is their right.

But Robert Vadra’s claim of privateness is an assertion of something more. It demands an exercise of wilful blindness to an obvious act of exploitation by invoking the idea that what he does is not in the public domain however publicly he acts. He might strut about with a posse of commandos, he might make a fortune by investing a paltry sum and finding it magically transform into hundreds of crores just by being lucky, as private citizens are known to be, and we get to look away because he is, well, a private citizen. It does not merely ask for the suspension of scrutiny but for an erasure of sight. Robert Vadra’s actions do not exist, and if some journalist has them on tape, then well, it must be erased.

The issue is not one of Vadra behaving badly with a journalist, or even throwing his weight around, for even a minor politician’s second cousin twice removed feels entitled enough to act that way, but of the belief that the world will comply and refuse to see or react to the actions of the powerful. When the most vulnerable member of what has historically been the most powerful family in the country, believes that in an age of an intrusive and aggressive media, he can act without regard to consequences, it communicates supreme belief in one’s specialness. Vadra’s surprise is at being asked any questions at all, and his reactions indicative of a belief that the bubble of invisibility that surrounds him is an impenetrable one.

It does not follow that all those who are part of a politician’s family are fair game when it comes to public scrutiny. There are enough examples of family members effortlessly earning the right to privacy as regular citizens. Internationally, this is the norm, whereas in India, by virtue of a dynastic fascination that the voter seems to possess, this is not quite the same since so many family members follow in the slipstream of a politicians success. But in the case of the Gandhi family, the idea that any adult member of the family, can presumptively be seen as being a private citizen is difficult to accept. There was a time when this was not the case, indeed Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi lived the lives of private citizens, more or less, before Mrs Gandhi’s assassination. But now that it is clear that the Congress will cling on to any member of the family, no matter how inept or reluctant they might be to don the mantle of leadership, it is difficult to accord Mr Vadra this presumptive right. Had Robert Vadra behaved with exemplary caution, kept a really low profile and made it abundantly clear that he was not interested in anything political, then there might have been a case to be made, but he has effectively ruled that possibility out with his actions. While his most authoritative pronouncements have come in the area of fitness and body-building, he has not fought shy of expounding on other subjects of interest to the aam aadmi. He has also signalled his eagerness to join politics, something that has fortunately not been allowed to come to pass. In an era where image is everything, what is revealing is the utter disregard for even attempting to maintain appearances. In this case, for instance, anyone else in a sensitive position, would know better than to react to a journalist’s in this way.

The problem is that Mr Vadra has been given more than enough reason to believe what he does. The powerful in India do not always need to demand deference; it is showered voluntarily and pre-emptively on them. At airports, even minor ex-ministers or members of fringe political groups are treated with a flurry of exaggerated respect. The anger against Robert Vadra is well deserved for if nothing else he is guilty of arrogant insensitivity at the very least, if not of criminal culpability. But this anger is at its heart, hollow, for unless the powerful, and this includes politicians, celebrities, tycoons, top journalists- stop getting singled out for fawning behaviour and being granted exceptions from rules presumptively, nothing will change. It is tempting to tear into Vadra’s actions for he represents so much of what is wrong with the abuse of power in the country today, and one must give into the temptation for that is all we can do. But the VIP culture that has deep roots in the country is what needs our sustained ire. For now, Robert Vadra will do.