Live and let live is the way of Indian politics

Indian politics is not a winner-takes-all game. If the ruling party had shown some generosity instead of coming down so hard on Mahua Moitra, goodwill would have abounded
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

It was the English playwright, William Congreve, who gave the language its famous maxim, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” There is also the general interdiction: Thou shalt not “kiss and tell”. No matter how badly a relationship sours, to hit an ex below the belt makes one a cad, not an honourable person.

South of the Vindhyas, the revenge of a wronged lady has been memorialised in the tragic tale of Kannagi in the great Tamil epic Silappadikaram (c. 100 CE). She tore out a breast and cursed a city, bringing the ancient state of Poompuhar to an end. So feared is Kannagi that she is worshipped—or should I say appeased—as a goddess. As is Draupadi in Tamil Nadu.

Let us switch from mythology to Indian politics, which is no less imbued with larger-than-life heroes or redolent with fable and folklore. Consider the women leaders perceived to be wronged: Indira Gandhi, Gayatri Devi, J Jayalalithaa, to name only three. Indira Gandhi put Jaipur Maharani Gayatri Devi in jail. The Maharani was not only re-elected, but Indira Gandhi lost power in 1977. Of course, the rag-tag opposition that had united only to bring her down also collapsed. She returned as India’s prime minister less than three years later in 1980, winning 353 seats in the Lok Sabha, more than BJP has ever won.

And Jayalalithaa or Amma as she was popularly known? Her political career was chequered: She did not just have a remarkable rise to power in 1991 after her mentor M G Ramachandran or MGR, supremo of the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, died in 1987. After the 1996 state elections, she and her party were almost wiped out. She was also jailed by rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. But she returned to power with a thumping majority in 2001.

The lesson is two-fold. There are no full stops in Indian politics. More particularly, the Indian public does not take kindly to women netas being mistreated or insulted by the party in power.

Now to Mahua Moitra, who also compared herself with Draupadi, referring to the latter’s vastraharan or disrobing after being expelled from parliament on Friday. The parliamentary ethics panel pronounced her guilty of “unethical conduct”. Yes, she committed a mistake by sharing her Lok Sabha user ID and password with Dubai-based businessman Darshan Hiranandani. But will the National Informatics Centre care to enlighten the Indian public on how many other MPs routinely share their credentials too? What about the fact that without the OTP received on her phone, whose location could also be tracked, access was not possible?

Moitra’s conduct was “found to be unbecoming as an MP” by the ethics panel. But are our other MPs paragons of virtue or spotless high-priests in our “temple of democracy”? She was accused of “cash for queries”—taking money for posing questions in the Indian parliament. Was this proven? No. From cash, the allegations turned to gifts. Even the number or extent of these were never proven. Nor a cause and effect, quid pro quo between receiving gifts and raising questions. Soon, the allegations and goal posts shifted to “national security”, a buzzword that makes it easier to hang someone. But did sharing her credentials have an “irrepressible impact on national security” as the panel claimed? If so, this was not proven either.

Opposition MPs did not support her expulsion. The panel’s verdict was not unanimous. Furthermore, she was not allowed to speak in her own defence. Her accusers were not cross-examined. How, then, can we believe that justice was served? What happened to the presumption of innocence—more commonly known as “innocent until proven guilty”—in common law? Did the panel forget that it is enshrined in Article 11 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which India was a major contributor and early signatory?

Moitra, freshly banished from parliament—with the entire opposition flanking her—called herself the victim of “a kangaroo court”. With customary vitriol, she pronounced the doom of the BJP, quoting our national anthem and saying that “Punjab, Sind, Dravida, Utkal, Banga” are not with the BJP.

With less than six months left until the 2024 general elections, Moitra can be more dangerous to the BJP outside parliament than inside it. When she goes to her constituency and pours out her tale of being wronged by a vindictive central government and its crony capitalist leader, won’t she get a sympathetic response? And if she is re-elected to parliament, won’t it be sweet revenge indeed for her and her party?

The ruling party is admired by many for its “killer instinct”. Those who believe that Hindus were defeated in the past because they forgave their enemies support the “mercilessness” of the present leadership. Going for the jugular, to them, is the preferred option. But is the “killer instinct” an appropriate political strategy against fellow parliamentarians or even opposition parties?

Perhaps, instead of coming down so hard on Moitra, this was the time to show some generosity and large-heartedness. This would have earned the BJP more goodwill and saved it from the charge of authoritarianism and misogyny.

Indian politics is not a zero-sum or winner-takes-all game. The Indian people are not only forgiving, but they are actually kind-hearted. They have, moreover, a deep sympathy for the underdog. Only the victim should also not come across as being arrogant, defiant, unrepentant or contemptuous.

Those who are crushed or banished often return. With renewed force and energy. Especially if they manage to learn valuable lessons from their defeat and humiliation. If they can rebrand, rejuvenate and resurrect themselves. This is the time for Moitra to reboot and reformat her image as a more mature political leader, a rallying point for the opposition, rather than a petulant or shrill harridan. Albeit no less feisty, courageous, and strong-willed.

As for the BJP, they must remember that live and let live, not live and let die, is the Indian way. It is also the way of Indian politics and of Sanatana Dharma itself.

(Views are personal)

Makarand R Paranjape

Professor of English, Jawaharlal Nehru University

(Tweets @MakrandParanspe)

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