What would Twitter have made of Jawaharlal Nehru's relationship with Edwina Mountbatten or Gandhiji's sleeping arrangement with his nieces? And how would judgement have been pronounced in 140 characters on Ram Manohar Lohia's live-in relationship with professor Rama Mitra?
For that matter, when did the lines between public and private blur? And when did a personal matter between two people, regardless of the office they hold, become the subject of legitimate discourse?
Delhi's favourite sport of cheering while reputations crumble seems to have been replaced by a game of watching surreptitiously shot CDs, the tittle-tattle masked by the self-righteous fig leaf of public interest. In a recent case, it is being asked: were sexual favours traded for career promotions? There is no evidence. Is the CD even real? Nobody knows. Moreover, we still subscribe to the notion 'innocent till proven guilty'. But try telling that to the howling mob.
For most of our history, the private lives of public figures have been led away from the spotlight. And the Indian public has responded by rarely caring to know. A former prime minister's unusual living arrangement was almost never commented upon and did not detract from his formidable standing in the country. A former president's rumoured sexual inclinations remained his business and he remains one of our most beloved presidents. Nehru's private secretary MO Mathai's kiss-and-tell Reminiscences of the Nehru Age lies forgotten in publishing's dustbin despite containing such weighty matters as Padmaja Naidu's bust size.
This discretion followed the dictates of taste, decorum and decency. What mattered was how politicians conducted their public business - the equation between Karunanidhi's heirs, not the number of his wives; Mayawati's political legacy not her relationship with Kanshi Ram; who Jayalalithaa trusts, not why she fell out with an aide.
The rule has held until very recently. A rumour involving Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah was nipped when Abdullah himself pleaded for privacy while tweeting that his marriage was indeed over. Who he was now seeing, or not, was his business.
This is not to imply that everything has to remain private. ND Tiwari's nauseating romp that led to his sacking crosses the line because we cannot have a governor who doesn't understand the dignity of his office. It matters to us when Karnataka MLAs watch porn in the assembly. What they do at the workplace is our business. I don't care if my elected representative has one mistress or four, but when that dishonourable minister is alleged to have bumped her off, then, yes, I want to know and I want justice to be done whether his name is Mahipal Maderna or Amarmani Tripathi.
We live in what columnist Pratap Bhanu Mehta calls an 'age of sleaze'. It's an age that finds its beginnings in liberalisation, the opening up of media, big ticket corruption and sting operations. Back then, the justification was that the only way to catch the corrupt was with a hidden camera. Stings were aired on TV without verification and sometimes with tragic results. In 2007, for instance, a sting ruined a principal's reputation by claiming wrongly that she was involved in a prostitution racket.
Today we don't need the sting of mainstream media. Anyone with an internet connection can make or break reputations. Anyone with a Twitter account (and often an anonymous handle) can become a peddler of gossip and, worse, hate, as seen in the attack on Sachin Tendulkar following his Rajya Sabha nomination. It's an erosion that is reflected often in mainstream media, ravenous for TRP points and 'breaking news'.
At stake is not just the reputation of individuals or the future of the media but the quality of our social discourse. We are sliding down a slippery slope and it will be hard to clamber back. We are traversing territory where issues are trivialised, trial is held by innuendo and personal embarrassment becomes legitimate news.
Unfortunately, none of this comes without some degree of collateral damage. Every scandal drags in someone's family and someone's kids who pay the price of someone else's dirty picture. In the end we are all losers.
Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.