To say that a scandal is a professional hazard that the politicians have to endure may sound like a cynical rationalisation of the detestable. Both are true; the hazard is indeed a given and its rationalisation is unmistakable though only implied and hence safe. It comes rather easy these days to propound a lofty position such as "we have zero tolerance for corruption" and then let the trapeze artist walk a tight rope of semantics on prime time news shows, wriggling and wiggling.
The purpose of this article isn't to defend or pillory, on the sly or otherwise, someone caught exaggerating educational qualifications or writing a "secret" testimonial recommendation or, for that matter, making a "humanitarian" intervention for a dodgy fugitive. Far from it. It is to take a stroll down memory trail. That the trail ends up perilously close to the swamp is another matter.
Ramakrishna Hegde was a charismatic politician from Karnataka. One wonders why. He was born a Brahmin. This, in the state's electoral politics dominated by caste arithmetic, was a monumental disability. Add to that the all pervasive political discourse that paid a hefty premium for being born a "backward". This double whammy made a Brahmin politician exemplify an anachronism like little else did. Layer that with a fierce rivalry between Lingayats and Vokkaligas that dominates the scene in Karnataka, and you have all the reasons for Hegde to not become the first ever non-Congress chief minister of Karnataka. But he did, in 1983.
He did it again, in 1985. This time it was even more astounding. The entire country, of more than 70 crore of us Indians, were on a torrid honeymoon with "oh-so-handsome-and-clean" Rajiv Gandhi. We gave him 413 seats in Lok Sabha, a mandate the size of which eluded even Nehru, his grandfather. Hegde trounced him, single-handedly, as the cliché goes. MJ Akbar, the then editor of the then popular newsweekly Sunday, and an unabashed gushing admirer of Rajiv Gandhi, was driven to put Hegde on the cover of his magazine. He also declared him to be someone to watch out for as our future prime minister. Hegde was mild mannered and suave. He was erudite and perhaps, that is why, spoke little and measured. I was getting into my 20s when I began to notice him. He had few peers who could match him in his effortless elegance and charm.
Hegde too was hit by a scandal. As a non-Congress chief minister, he was a rarity those days. But that did not make him anymore tolerable for the Congress, even led by someone like Rajiv Gandhi who was supposed to be ushering in a new era in politics. His handpicked leader of opposition in the Karnataka Assembly was the then young Veerappa Moily, who had already earned a sobriquet of "Oily Moily" for his slimy ways. The Indian Express those days was edited by the redoubtable Arun Shourie. In 1988, The Express, as was its habit those days, broke a scandal on its front pages. Moily was published, in conversation, with some Janata Dal MLAs, offering allurements to switch sides and bring down the government. The anti-defection "reform" was yet to happen. So, there was no law to prevent legislators or parliamentarians from crossing the floor.
Now look at the bizarre turn of events. Oily Moily did not dispute the conversations reproduced in The Express. He, instead, chose to play a victim of an intrusion of privacy. Telephones were still under the government. There were no laws then yet, to prevent a government from overhearing what its citizens were up to. The Supreme Court laid down an elaborate set of guidelines, for a government keen to listen in, only in 1997. Moily, who ought to have been embarrassed for being caught brazenly horse-trading, was strutting around outraged instead. Hegde, who ought to have been outraged by the open and proven murky attempts to bring down his government through bribery, watched in disbelief. And as the lopsided contest between what was more immoral, eavesdropping on political skulduggery or horse-trading to undo an electoral mandate, raged, the gentleman that Hegde was - who continued to enjoy a comfortable majority in the House - did not even look for a scapegoat. He quietly put in his papers, making way for his colleague SR Bommai. Those days we neither had prime time news shows nor chest thumping drumbeaters screaming convoluted arguments, to defend anything, anyhow.