To paraphrase Edmund Burke, the Irish statesman, political theorist and philosopher, when leaders choose to make themselves the centre of popularity contests, “their talents, in the construction of the state, will be of no (consequence)... Instead of legislators, they will become the instruments, not the guides, of the people.”
I guess that is exactly what happened to Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis twice over last week when, unthinkingly, he jumped to help some people who, as it turned out, were clearly manipulating him to their own ends.
The more well known of these incidents was one relating to comedian Kapil Sharma who, on Friday, tweeted that he was an honest tax payer attempting to build an office, but still had to pay a bribe of Rs 5 lakh to officials of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation.
That allegation immediately electrified the nation and, within moments, Fadnavis had tweeted back, announcing action and directing top municipal officers to look into his complaint. But in a few hours it was very embarrassingly apparent that the Chief Minister might have been too hasty in taking Sharma at face value. Even as the comedian refused to name the officer who asked him for the bribe, and has done a lot of conciliatory backtracking over the weekend, he faced the combined onslaught of not just the BJP and the Shiv Sena but also the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. Within hours of that controversy breaking open there were reports that Sharma himself might have violated the laws of the land by cutting down mangroves behind his building and attempting some illegal construction against the BMC’s warnings.
But one could say that Fadnavis could be forgiven for taking Sharma at face value. Who would have thought that such a celebrity, paying Rs 15 crore income tax annually, would have such a sense of entitlement that he would be blatant about not just violating the norms but also making a virtue of that law breaking?
However, the faux pas over Sharma pales by comparison with the curious (and spurious) case of Parmanand Hewalekar, who, along with his wife, was demonstrating before Mantralaya with an idol of Ganpati in his arms to bring the Chief Minister’s attention to his alleged ostracisation from his village in Kudal in the Konkan for just belonging to a lower caste. Hewalekar made out that a caste panchayat was preventing him and his wife from entering the village on those grounds.
Now that was patently untrue, for Hewalekar’s brother lives in the same village without any trouble. But I can understand Fadnavis’s eagerness to make amends, because less than six months ago he fought with his back to the wall – against his own party men – to have a bill against social boycotts passed by the assembly. That bill could be the defining progressive policy of his government.
But in his eagerness to please, I think Fadnavis made a grave error in not asking his officers to first conduct an enquiry into the case before inviting the man and his wife into his official residence to conduct Ganpati Puja along with him and other members of his staff and family. Within days it was apparent that Hewalekar was an absconder – running from his village where several complaints of molestation and sexual harassment had been registered against him. The courts have also ruled against him and within days of that puja at the CM’s residence, Hewalekar was arrested for serious offences under sections 354, 452 and 506 of the Indian Penal Code.
The opposition parties have jumped on the incident with glee with one senior Congress leader describing it a ‘tragi-comedy’ of ridiculous proportions, and another actually labelling the chief minister’s act as ‘porkatpana’ (childishness) in not following the norms of governance and confirming Hewalekar’s antecedents before stepping into the mire.
In fact, many opposition leaders have also pointed out that the CM had no time for Madhav Kadam, a young farmer from Marathwada, in March this year who died after consuming insecticide outside Mantralaya. He had been protesting, and an official failed to address his grievance of a shortfall in government compensation per hectare of land to farmers who had suffered crop failures during the severe droughts of the preceding three seasons.
That was a genuine case. Yet the other two fraudulent complaints were taken at face value. You cannot want to be too popular with the wrong people. It is best to be discreet and circumspect in high places and positions of power.