Home :: Sunday Sentiments

Sunday Sentiments

  • Wrong for the right reasons

    Posted On September 16, 1998

    By Karan Thapar

    There's something admirable about the American political system in the middle of one of its periodic fits of moral righteousness. I suppose that's why it is the greatest democracy in the world. Yet this doesn't mean I think the treatment of President Clinton is right. Of course, it's wrong - but it's wrong for all the right reasons.

    No, I'm not being deliberately contrary. For it's in the contradictions that the value and worth of the American system truly lies. Clinton is suffering but America is cleansing itself. Clinton could end up destroyed - and that may be very unfair - but America will regenerate itself.

    There are two American responses that I'm concerned about. The first is political and the second - even if on the surface moral - is actually no less so. It's just that it's political in a different way.

    The first is did Clinton perjure, obstruct justice or abuse the powers of his office. The American attitude is that regardless of whether he's president and, in fact, despite the fact he's the most powerful man in the world or what he did was only to avoid the embarrassment and humiliation of having his sex-life exposed, if there's even a hit of constitutional impropriety the case will be investigated, discussed and publicly aired till he's either declared manifestly innocent or found to be guilty.

    How different that is to the way we do things. We protect the powerful, cringe behind vacuous excuses of national prestige and ultimately retreat from the very challenge of justice. That's why the big men of our country - no, not just our politicians but all those who have power, pelf and position - never have to face the consequences of their deeds.

    In America they do. And even if the system temporarily looks ridiculous - or in the process the individual is crushed - it proves there's one law for everybody and everybody is the same before the law. A president is as accountable as a prostitute; sometimes only because the prostitute squealed on him. And remember the processes of justice can be very unfair. Well, this time they're being unfair to a man who's also president. So be it.

    The second American response only looks as if it's to do with morality. In fact it's about hypocrisy - and beyond that politics. Americans - like citizens of other countries - have one standard of behaviour for themselves and another for those they pretend to look up to. And once you elect a man president - or prime minister, or chief minister, or mayor, or whatever - we all pretend we have to look up to him. Actually, it's worse. We only do this when it suits us and usually that's when it doesn't suit him.

    Well, Americans have the strength to enforce their hypocrisy. They want their president to appear clean - and I emphasize the word appear - so that the rest of them can carry on exactly as they want. Today, when Clinton's transgressions remind them of their own they're venting their spleen on him and feeling good themselves. But then that's democracy, or rather the awful tyranny of the majority which is what Greek critics of democratia never hesitated to call it.

    In comparison what do we do? At first we shout and screech when our politicians are thought to be corrupt. But then when action is called for we chicken out. Worse, we shun the Ana Hazares who have the gumption to carry on the good fight. Unlike Americans we don't have the strength to enforce our 'hypocrisies'.

    However, don't kid yourself into believing that makes us any better. It only reveals our impotence. It's not that we justify our inaction with the argument who are we, a corrupt people ourselves, to throw stones at politicians who are no worse? Not at all. Such philosophical balancing is as far from our thinking as it is from the attitude of those Americans who have decided Clinton is a moral leper. It's just that we're intimidated by our politicians - in fact by all the big men of our society.

    Like Americans we too are hypocrites. Unlike them we're also cowards.

    Masters of the trade

    Don't underestimate Indian politicians. Their political squabbles are an act. Off air (or outside parliament) it's their chumminess and mateyness that are most striking. So if you think, having seen them go hammer and tongs on the screen, that they are at daggers drawn think again. They're buddies and they enact quarrels to amuse the rest of us.

    That, at least, is my considered view after observing them perform on innumerable television discussions. The most recent is my new programme on DD-2, On the Record, and if you missed the inaugural episode last Monday I suggest you catch the next one tomorrow night at 10.30.

    Last week we had Sushma Swaraj, Rajesh Pilot and A.B. Bardhan on the problems of this government as it completes six months in office. No doubt they interrupted and ridiculed each other but they did so using first names and smiling, if not applauding, their opponents attacks. It was an incredible performance. Thunderous but good natured. As Shakespeare might have put it “full of sound and fury signifying nothing”. The House of Commons or Capitol Hill could not have staged a better production.

    Tomorrow you'll see something even more revealing. I.K. Gujral, Natwar Singh and Surjeet Singh Barnala discuss the question 'In the wake of the nuclear tests should India re-think its relationship with Pakistan?'. Their verbal antics remind me of Yamini Krishnamurthi or at any rate Helen.

    They dance around the subject anxious not to suggest that Indian politicians are divided on the Pakistan question yet equally keen to foot fault the Government and each other. It is a delicate pas de deux. They perform it with smoothness and skill. As a result everything has two meanings and behind every smile is the shadow of thinly-suppressed disagreement. This time the volume is lower but the rapiers are wielded with pinpoint accuracy and the repartee reverberates underneath the studio lights.

    As far as TV is concerned our politicians have come of age. They've mastered the tricks of this dubious trade.

    The day I went up in smoke

    Talking about Clinton reminds me of cigars. The first I ever smoked was in Lagos. I must have been 25. It was 1980 and I was working for The Times as the paper's West Africa correspondent. On the night in question I was a guest at the British High Commission. Fortunately it was just across the road from where I lived.

    Feeling rather grown up I decided I was going to indulge myself. After dinner I accepted a brandy and when the cigars were proffered I found I couldn't resist. Brandy and cigars on the terrace are the stuff adult males are made of.

    What I didn't know and no one told me is that smoking a cigar is by no means easy. First you have to unwrap it. That's the simple part. Then you have to cut it. That's when things start getting tricky. If you don't know how you might end up slicing the whole thing like salami. But even if you don't things won't improve.

    A cigar takes its time to light. So if you're using a match watch out because your fingers could catch fire. I was and I kept dropping the burning stick, usually on someone's inflammable dress. As Clinton is discovering repentance is not sufficient after such a sin.

    Eventually when your cigar does catch you have to puff continuously because as soon as you stop it goes off. That was such a frightening thought I puffed like mad. Within minutes I was enveloped in thick smoke and the other guests fled. A little cigar smoke is a pleasing aroma; a lot is not.

    Left on my own and trying hard to appear grown up I smoked quietly and quickly. And I inhaled. Now if you've never done that before inhaling a cigarette is bad enough, but a full Romeo Y Juliet can be killing.

    I must have turned purple. I think my insides were on fire. No matter how much water I drank nothing seemed to douse the flames. I don't know how I made it home but perhaps it was only because I lived next door


    For the next two days I pretended I was sick. The truth is that the embers inside me took that long to die out. Every time someone suggested food they would start up again.

    On the third day I received a huge box of Havanas in a glorious humidor. The little note that came with it showed it was from my hosts of three nights before. It read : “Here are a hundred more to help you learn. Remember practice makes perfect”.

Share this Video:

There are no comments on this sunday sentiments yet.

Characters remaining (3000)

Will be displayedWill not be displayed

Will be displayed

Please answer this simple math question.

7 + 3