In India, shame is very short-lived

Last Updated: Thu, Dec 06, 2012 05:50 hrs

Many many years ago, I remember seeing a tabloid in London which had a large picture of Haryana strongman Devi Lal urinating against a wall, looking back at the camera with a grin.

'Would you want this man as your prime minister?' asked the caption.

Apparently, we didn't, though the Tau did become Deputy Prime Minister under two consecutive Prime Ministers.

The embarrassment I felt then as an Indian was nothing compared to the shame I felt when I learnt on Tuesday that the International Olympic Association had suspended India from its books, for electing 'tainted' men to head the Indian Olympic Association.

Shame, obviously, is an emotion our leaders are unfamiliar with.

How else would you explain Suresh Kalmadi demanding to return as President of the Indian Olympic Association, after spending nine months in a VIP jail over the Commonwealth Games (CWG) scam?

How else would you explain the election of Lalit Bhanot and Abhay Singh Chautala, both charged with massive corruption during the same CWG, as secretary general and president of the Indian Olympic Association?

Long ago, a senior Congress leader had patiently explained to me that the one rule that any veteran politician depended on was this: Public memory is short. Very short.

With every new scam that is being unearthed, we forget the earlier one. And apparently, those responsible for it.   

Forget scams and villains, we even forget our real heroes, preferring the celluloid versions instead. 

How many of us know, or care, that we are marking the 41st year of the 1971 war, in which  over 4000 Indian soldiers were killed and almost 10000 injured?

"My own country has forgotten me, but at least the Bangladeshis remember me," General JFR Jacob, a hero of that war, told me moments ago on the telephone.

Forget the soldiers and our forces, a subject I am prone to drone on about, we even forget atrocities committed against our own people, by our own people.

How else can you explain criminals with murder charges and worse pending against them contesting state and parliamentary from jail, and winning?

How else can you explain a chief minister accused of a massive fodder scam going on to become a famous Union railway minister, feted and hailed not just by us but by Harvard and other Ivy League universities, and even Pakistan?

How else can you explain the huge turnout and paeans of praise at the funeral of an unelected leader, known and feared for his ability to mobilise goons who could shut down entire city? 

How else can you explain the increasing and blatant disregard for the law, particularly by politicians and their flunkeys, the rich and the powerful?

And increasingly, the common man, that is you and I.

Some six years ago, I interviewed General ML Thapan, PVSM (Param Vishisht Seva Medal), a World War II veteran who had also seen action in the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan. Sitting ramrod straight in his small apartment in Som Vihar, the 'thinking man's general', who was 89 then, lamented the decline of morality in our great land.

"Morality," he told me, "is a word that has disappeared from the Indian vocabulary... Society has built up certain unwritten norms. If you don't observe them, society breaks up. Why was Moses' 10 Commandments written? They were all written because people wanted to see some sort of order was observed in society. Otherwise, you might as well live like animals in the jungle. So we are now more or less reverting to type."

Asked how various charges of corruption in the army affected the hitherto-squeaky clean image of our forces, he sharply replied: "What about the image of the rest of the people? In the government? Why assume that the army will stay clear of it? After all, we are all part of the same system, the same country, the same culture. It is like water, which finds its own level. At some point of time, a stop will have to be put to it. It will be force of circumstances..."

"There is no accountability in this country at all. You can get away with anything. When that happens... the younger generation, who does it learn from? Only from their superiors. If their superiors are in that game, then the younger generation has no choice...," he concluded.

A couple of years ago, retired Supreme Court Justice BN Srikrishna wrote a wonderful column where he argued that it was not the law that was an ass, the lawmakers were.  

The antics of most of our lawmakers would indeed seem asinine, except at the end of the day, they are the ones laughing their way out of jail to their Swiss banks.

Who cares if the world sneers and sniggers at India because we elect corrupt officials to our sporting institutions? Who cares if the exchequer, which again is you and I, is looted systemically and shamelessly to fill private coffers?    

As the old song goes, 'Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.'

As for Devi Lal, at least he probably didn't even know he was being indecorous, and smiled at the person shooting him. The other day, when a woman and her daughter objecting to a man who was urinating on their wall in Nizamuddin, New Delhi, he shot both of them, killing the girl and critically wounding the mother. Arrested after six days, he will probably be out on bail in less than a month.

Because public memory is very short-lived.

And in our country, so is shame.

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Ramananda Sengupta is a senior editor and strategic analyst

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