Dirty picture on prime time

The first-of-its-kind sex scandal featuring Suresh Ram, the son of the then Defence Minister in Morarji Desai’s cabinet, Babu Jagjivan Ram had a sinister and seamy side too. It was a scathing political vendetta launched against Jagjivan Ram. It was a transitional phase in Indian polity. Congress was defeated in the general elections in 1977 and Janata Dal, a coalition of loosely connected elements came to power. Within the Janata Dal, there was intense rivalry. Morarji Desai, Charan Singh and Jagjivan Ram, each vying for number 1 slot, trying to undercut each other.

It was under these political circumstances, the photograph of Suresh Ram in compromising positions with a girl called Sushma Chaudhury decorated the central-spread of a monthly magazine called Surya. Maneka Gandhi, daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi was the editor of the magazine.

Politicians have often used sex scandals of their rivals to achieve their goals. But in case of Suresh Ram, the distinctive feature was, he was neither a political figure nor a public personality. But Jagjivan Ram’s detractors exploited Suresh Ram’s philandering to the hilt, the issue rocked the nation and it ended Jagjivan Ram’s ambition to become India’s Prime Minister.

Time changed and so did technology which has undergone a sea change in last few decades. Politicians, bureaucrats have been caught accepting bribes on camera, sex and sleazy CDs having become the order of the day. Journalists who have pushed these limits and have been part of the so-called sting operations stood by these actions as editorially justified and in the public interest. Even British taboids have carried out stories of sex scandals in the guise of public interest and reporters had been authorised to hack into computers for stories. That included in the case of Anne and John Darwin, the so-called ‘canoe couple’ who became notorious in Britain after the husband faked his own death in a boating accident as part of an elaborate insurance scam. So the thin line remains between individual’s right to privacy and public interest defense, which has been the center of debate and controversy in recent past, both in India and in the western world.

The recent controversial CD involving the former spokesperson of the Congress Party, a sitting member of the Rajya Sabha and a noted lawyer Abhishek Manu Singhvi with a fellow colleague has rocked the nation. The civil suit instituted by the Member of Parliament to prevent the news channels to air the CD and the so-called settlement with his driver who had purported to have morphed the CD as claimed by Singhvi could not prevent the contents of the CD reaching each household, thanks to the social networking sites, which incidentally also endorses India’s dominance in the field of information technology in the world.

Singhvi was quick to comment that the canard was spread simply to give the issue a public interest flavour since otherwise the contents of the CD, ‘assuming them to be true, (which they certainly are not), would disclose only something private and consensual giving a cause of action only to aggrieved family members (who have stood completely by me) and to no one else’.

Certainly there is some element of truth in what Singhvi said. The statement would have gained more credibility and acceptability in both media and general public had Abhishek chosen to have filed a criminal complaint against the driver for having allegedly doctored the CD and made request for the CD to have been send to Central Forensic Scientific Laboratory (CFSL) for examination, the course which never opted for, reasons best known to him.

One important aspect which requires serious attention and probably lost sight in the whole controversy was the place where the purported act is alleged to have taken place. The authorities must at least investigate and reach to a logical finding because the place of the alleged act is an institution and one of the pillars of world’s largest democracy. Believing for a moment Singhvi’s contention that the act was something private and consensual does not give him the right and the authority to have allegedly performed as shown in the CD which is morphed as claimed by him.

The larger question still remains, whether the lives of the rich and the famous comes under public scrutiny. To say so that their actions would be viewed in the same manner as of a commoner would be highly inappropriate. Democracy does give you the right to personal liberty and freedom, but when you select to be in public life, a set of moral tenets is expected from the leaders. It will also remain a question for debate and both sides will continue to argue and try and justify for public and private interest.

Vikas Gupta is an advocate practising in New Delhi.
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