The mandarins at the Ministry of External Affairs — how on earth did they come to be called mandarins? — are reported to be in a flap over India’s official guest at the Republic Day function. It’s not French President Nicolas Sarkozy who’s causing the fuss as much as his new girlfriend, now apparently his fiancée, Carla Bruni. There’s a fair chance that Bruni could join Sarkozy later this month when he begins his four-day visit to India. This is apparently causing the ‘mandarins’ to lose sleep.
How do they treat her? At official banquets, where do they seat her? How do they fit her in at the Republic Day parade? What about their sleeping arrangements: one room or two with an adjoining door? And what sort of protocol does one lay out for the First Girlfriend? It’s to sort out these prickly issues that MEA officials are reported to have met their French counterparts in order to avoid a possible diplomatic faux pas in the very near future.
It says something about the times we live in that since his election last year, Sarkozy has made the news as much — if not more — for his personal life as his policies. Most people would be more familiar with his Euro Disney tryst (where the story of the romance broke) than with his negotiations with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez over Colombian guerrillas. Certainly, Sarkozy has gone out of his way to flaunt his new girlfriend, travelling with her in December to Egypt — a trip that got him more coverage than his surprise visit to Afghanistan the same month to meet Hamid Karzai and address French troops.
The tabloidisation of Sarkozy has all the elements of a public relations coup and only in France could the news of a mistress actually boost the President’s ratings. It adds to the mystique that the glamorous and rich Bruni’s previous boyfriends have reportedly included Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton. The tabloids and even the mainstream press have fallen for the bait hook, line and sinker. Contrast this with the theatre that is the US elections — where the trappings of family are essential accessories to presidential candidates and families like the Clintons, with their tortured angst, put in photo ops for the sake of Hillary’s fast-fading candidacy.
Sex and politics always makes for a pretty heady cocktail, though not always with happy results. In another part of the world, Malaysian Health Minister Chua Soi Lek had to resign after being caught in flagrante delicto with a woman who was not his wife. Ironically, nobody seems to have questioned Chua Soi Lek’s performance as a minister, and while his wife has stood behind him, his party seems to have been less forgiving and there is a nagging question about who leaked the DVD — and why.
Indian media have been generally circumspect about the personal lives of Indian politicians. Girlfriends, mistresses and second wives are part of the baggage and nobody really bats an eyelid. Everybody famously knew about a senior statesman’s long-time woman companion and her family that he adopted but nobody wrote about it — nor did it detract from his standing in his otherwise conservative party. And stories of the extraordinary relationship between Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten are only now beginning to surface, 60 years after Independence, and have done nothing to dent the reputation of India’s first Prime Minister.
Sometimes the odd story does breakthrough. The famous incident a few years ago when a senior Congress leader from Uttaranchal went missing for a day only to resurface in a highway guesthouse caused some red faces but no lasting damage. The leader went on to becoming the governor of a state. It’s only when sex and politics results in crime — as in the Amarmani Tripathi case, where a love affair gone apparently wrong resulted in the murder of poetess Madhumati Shukla — that heads roll.
We’ve stuck by the old rules, give or take. Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh’s rumoured girlfriend, Aroosa Alam, a Pakistani journalist, does make for a spicy story, but one that has less to do with moral outrage than scoring political brownie points: his opponents have been insinuating that she’s an ISI agent. And when the mainstream press raises the story, it’s usually as a nudge-nudge gossip item than a full-scale news report.
Is there a lesson to be learnt from India? I think so. Two issues come to mind. The first: are those in public life entitled to a private life, and where does one draw the line? I can see the merit in knowing, for instance, whether my elected representative is a wife-beater or a dowry-taker. Do I really need to know whether he has one mistress or four? Unless he’s bestowing them with public monies or misusing his office for their benefit, I think not.
The second: by focusing on the private, and frequently trivial, details of the lives of politicians, are we in danger of losing sight of the bigger picture? Sarkozy’s detractors, for instance, allege that the Bruni romance story was timed to break just as Sarkozy was being roasted at home for playing host to Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and signing deals with him worth 10 billion euros. And there’s a real fear in India that Carla Bruni — should she decide to come visit — could turn a serious, official visit into a media circus.
I suspect that as the media become more and more competitive, with TV channels racing for ‘breaking news’, Sarkozy-style stories could become more commonplace — sometimes as plants by manipulative politicians to boost their own ratings, sometimes as devices to bring down political rivals, and at other times as game to boost ratings and push up readership.
But we’d do well to remember that while we have every right to ask our politicians to be honest, efficient and effective, what they do in their off-hours is entirely their business.