In an election season, most normal decencies are abandoned in the primeval pursuit of power. Our politicians pull no punches in the gladiatorial ring of poll bouts. Even so, the unspoken rules of the game demand that one thing remains off limits, the private lives of public figures. In this aspect, we have shown more liberalism and maturity than oddly contradictory western countries that demand a strenuous social conservatism from their political leaders.
So, the purported ‘sex CD’ of Gujarat leader Hardik Patel that appears to show him in a consensual clinch with an unidentified woman, should not be the subject of any debate or outrage. For the sex lives of politicians to be any of our business there can be only two criteria: Either there is a compelling issue of public interest involved; let’s say if a parliamentarian votes to criminalise homosexuality but is gay himself, that hypocrisy is relevant to me as a voter. Or we should care if the woman’s consent is in question because of violence, harassment or the exploitation of a man’s powerful position. Or if there is a suggestion of paedophilia or statutory rape. I cannot think of any other reason for having an opinion on what consenting adults do in their personal space.
We have mostly shown that live and let live spirit. Atal Bihari Vajpayee had an unconventional living arrangement with his foster family living with him in the prime minister’s residence; it was an absolute non-issue. Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh’s well-known and publicly acknowledged closeness to a Pakistani journalist has never been raked up or commented on in any significant way. Not just politicians, even our media has mostly respected these boundaries.
Which is why I think any story that goes scandal-hunting in the bedrooms of public figures (again, provided there is consent and unfettered free will and no public interest issues at stake) is not just stupid; it is an embarrassment to journalism. Unless there is reason to believe that the woman on the Hardik CD was coerced, there is only one reason that the sex-tape should be a news story, and that is for its brazen invasion of privacy.
As journalists, we should draw a red line and not allow this pathetic tabloidisation of our news. The private lives of all politicians—Hardik Patel, Rahul Gandhi or Prime Minister Modi—is their business alone. It’s the reason I find the occasional social media commentary on the lapsed marriage of Narendra Modi (he married at a very young age) entirely tasteless. Or why I think questions to Rahul Gandhi on when he will get married are inane and seriously avoidable. What does any of this have to do with their capacity to be effective and progressive leaders?
There are other dangers with this kind of embarrassing trivialisation of news. Not just does it place a moral value on sex between adults as somehow dirty and to be disapproved of, but it conflates consent and coercion thereby making it tougher for women who are actually abused and harassed to stand separate from the noise of manufactured ‘scandals’ like this one.
And then, of course, there is the glaring irony: We have refused to criminalise marital rape, but we want to penalise consensual sex. What sense does that make?
Going headline-hunting in the sex-lives of politicians, or any other celebrity, is frankly, the descent of news into the gutter.