The private life of those in public space isn’t so private after all
By TSR Subramanian
25th November 2012 12:00 AM
The line demarcating privacy limits of ‘public’ persons in India has not been drawn clearly. Periodically, this issue comes to the fore, though it does not get settled with any precision or definite guidelines—each case is discussed on ‘merits’, with the point of view taken by the protagonists depending on ‘interests’ or prejudices. A citizen’s IT Returns are normally protected through privacy; however, the moment he declares his candidature to become an MP or MLA, his assets are required to be disclosed formally—clearly at this point, he moves into public space, whether or not he gets elected. Presumably, he retreats to ‘privacy’ if he loses the election. It is another story that nearly every elected public official, and frequently his relatives, multiply their wealth manifold while he is in office—the system does not deem it necessary to keep a close watch on how legitimately the assets have grown. The principle is clear: the moment a person declares his intention to enter public space, he loses his privacy, at least in large part.
A couple of decades ago, a US presidential aspirant, even during the very early primary campaigns, was photographed with a prostitute; the publicity and the media investigation that followed was adequate to force him to give up any presidential ambition that he had. Old-timers would recall the Profumo scandal, when UK’s defence minister’s ‘affair’ became publicly exposed, and a brilliant political career was cut short. The principle applied was that the security of the state cannot be risked through even very private actions by those in public space—in the Profumo case there was no evidence whatsoever of any linkage with security issues. In a similar vein, in the recent case of US CIA Chief Petraeus, even though no security doubts were raised, a high-profile career was terminated due to an extra-marital indiscretion. Indeed, even while Margaret Thatcher was the UK prime minister, her son was investigated for business deals in the Middle-East. When Uddhav Thackeray had his recent angioplasty, with all details splashed in the media, none raised any question about the propriety of disclosing health matters. There is not much privacy in a minister’s life—when he marries a lady who had received Rs 50 crore, possibly without a convincing reason how she earned it, it can be argued that this is a legitimate public issue. Every rule, however, has exceptions—John F Kennedy as US president got away with flagrant peccadilloes.
Recall that Rajat Gupta was convicted on the basis of taped telephonic conversations with Rajaratnam. Gupta was not under surveillance; Rajaratnam was—though not for ‘insider trading’, but for LTTE funding. Gupta could not successfully argue in the court that his conversation was ‘private’. When a public relations company’s chief discusses with a leading columnist about ‘influencing’ the appointment of a Cabinet minister—a criminal act if proved—the full conversation assumes ‘public’ character. The Vohra Committee Report identified ‘nexus’ in many dimensions—large corporations cannot hide under the umbrella of ‘privacy’.
The exposure of the recent scams has brought out the essential venality in the decision-making processes. RTI symbolises arrival of the age of transparency—sunshine of open information is the best remedy to combat conspiracies at high places. In the Indian context, our laws need to be interpreted whenever possible in favour of openness and transparency. Our political parties are in public space—it is astonishing that they can argue before the chief information commissioner that their funding sources are to be kept secret. Cricket being a national ‘religion’, it is a crying shame that the BCCI can claim ‘privacy’ and demand exemption from RTI.
The recent Vadra-DLF exposé by India Against Corruption has brought the issue of privacy into focus. Czarina’s relative must be ‘above suspicion’ —it will be an insult to the citizen’s intelligence to claim that Vadra is a private person. Recall that in every airport, out of 30-odd categories of officials entitled to use the VIP lounge, Vadra was the only one listed by name for this privilege, as also for exemption from ‘frisking’ at airports. DLF is the largest real estate corporation in the country, and a listed company. When allegations are made, rightly or wrongly, against these public entities, someone in authority ought to look into it, and declare if there is truth in the charges. Have the bureaucratic heads of the Department of Company Affairs, SEBI, the stock exchanges, all have got their spines replaced with jelly? Why is there not a whisper from any of these about the correctness or otherwise of the allegations? Don’t these heads of organisations have any pride in the offices they hold? Do they not treat it as an attack on the integrity of the management of the agencies under their charge? Have the audit community raised questions with the company’s auditors on the correctness of the allegations? Should not someone in the system stand up to either validate the charges, or to clear the reputation of the entities? These are disturbing questions—one waits for every storm to abate, and then business as usual.
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