In a democracy, a leader does not stand on a pedestal. He can be criticised and caricatured in the press, not with the intention of demolishing the person but with the desire to check the megalomania that seems to grow naturally in a person in a position of power. In India, no leader has been spared the barbed words and images in the press. And Indian leaders did not resent the pinpricks of the scribes. Shankar's cartoons about Nehru were quite sharp. And so have been the portraits drawn by the inimitable R K Laxman in the last 40 years had been cavalier about the pomposity of the leaders.
It's not that Indians do not know how to be irreverent. But there are cultural norms which Indians would not violate, and they think that those who violate there are really beyond the pale of civilisation. The Time magazine correspondent Alex Perry's profile of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in the latest issue of the magazine violates the norm.
Perry in his report, with inputs from Sankarshan Thakur and Meenakshi Ganguly, purveys gossip which is known to all the cub reporters in the nation's capital. It is no great discovery that Vajpayee had always enjoyed his glass of whisky. As a matter of fact, when prime minister Morarji Desai, the puritan, exhorted Indian students in the then Soviet Union to keep themselves sober and all that, Vajpayee, who was the minister for external affairs then, told the students after Desai walked out, to enjoy themselves.
That Vajpayee loves good food is also a known fact, and he also enjoys the company of women. He is in many ways an epicurean, and this indeed could be one of the reasons that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has been uncomfortable with him.
So, there was nothing very serious in Perry constructing a report on details to make a larger point. He does not do that. Instead, he talks about the ill-health of the prime minister, and his many ailing organs - liver, bladder, knees and the single kidney. And that indeed leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
It is an expression of the callowness of the reporter, and also an example of the illiberal arrogance of the liberal, Western media when it deals with leaders of Third World countries. Had he written a similar story in Malaysia about prime minister Mahathir Mohammed, Perry would have been shown the door. In India he will find many who will derive great pleasure in the dishonourable piece he has written.
And it does not really matter. Indian prime ministers do not depend on the ephemeral nonsense that Western reporters write about this country and its leaders. But it does show that Western journalists lack etiquette which is valued in the East, and which is considered as one of the qualifications of a civilised person. You do not speak about the diseases of an old man, except in the medical sense. You do not use it to make a barbed argument against the effectiveness of a prime minister. We put it down for lack of civility, and plain bad manners.
Published in Tehelka