Punting along in Britannia

April.24 : The Shashi Tharoor episode finally put Indian politics on par with politics everywhere else in the world. So far the personal lives of Indian politicians have been off-limits for the media. And though Delhi is always rife with gossip about who is sleeping with whom, no one has as yet been interested in publishing anything about any activity between the bedsheets. In sharp contrast, the UK media has no such inhibitions. It is often filled with alarmingly salacious details of people’s private lives. In India, on the other hand, MPs and ministers are like demi-gods and so this fracas was an absolute bonanza for everyone. No one’s feelings were spared as Shashi-Sunanda became a metaphor for the “sweetheart deal”.

But the other big difference between the reportage will be revealed fairly soon, as it is doubtful whether the Indian media will succeed in publishing all the facts behind IPL-gate. Whilst here the media becomes a bloodhound, refusing to give up till all is revealed, one fears that the IPL story is likely to turn into another Bofors, a political game where the media is too dependent on government leaks to get to the truth. In the UK, by now, some tabloids would have managed to blow everyone’s cover, even by paying someone a huge sum of money to get to a list of stakeholders. It is definitely not ethical journalism, but when investigations reach a roadblock, the media (especially the tabloid press) in the UK is known to employ every trick in the book. But for the IPL story it may already be too late. Remember, files are disappearing very fast…
However, another big difference which has emerged in this entire unhappy episode is the persistent sanctimonious attitude of the Indian government on the issue of betting. It is a mystery why betting remains illegal, even though it is carried out all over India, albeit surreptitiously. In the UK betting is a national pastime, and right now bets are being placed (even in the Guardian!) about who is going to win the next election! In fact, on the night of the televised leadership debate on April 15, between the three main contenders for prime ministership, bets were being placed on:
l Who would be the first to perspire, when the pressure built up.
l The number of times Gordon Brown (the leader of the Labour Party) ”agreed with Nick Clegg” (the leader of the Liberal Democrats).
l The number of times David Cameron (the leader of the Conservatives) said “change”.
l Who would be the first to mention the recent volcanic eruption.
l Who had the last word.
l Who was the first to interrupt.
l Who was the first to raise their voice.
And, of course, for the “debate winner” there was live betting throughout the television broadcast. If nothing else, the positive fallout of this has been that the disinterested UK population (and, indeed, anyone watching the debate) is now watching the election process as keenly as they would a football match. And by default they have become engaged in the process of selecting their Prime Minister. The betting stakes also mean that pubs are full of viewers who are following the political debates — and egging their own candidates on. What could be possibly wrong with that?
Of course, in India the government feels that the poor must be saved from themselves because betting is an evil addiction. Alas, we forget that the stock market is nothing but glorified betting. But because in the latter case the well-to-do benefit, they are permitted to feed their “addiction”. It’s a contrarian policy which encourages corruption as betting is pushed underground. In fact, if it came out in the open, as in this country — for a small amount of money — people would have a lot of fun, in the bargain. And some, of course, would legally make money too.
However, in the leaders’ debate, the odds were on Mr Clegg keeping up his initial bravura performance. Nothing much was expected from either Mr Cameron or Mr Brown — but to everyone’s surprise, Mr Cameron has managed to pull back the Tories from the brink of defeat and push his party back onto a winning streak once more. So now we are waiting for next week’s clinching (we hope) debate on the economy. Perhaps the Indian electorate should encourage these televised face-offs as well. It is a superficial game show format, but it definitely has forced people back into examining their leadership. The interest it has generated, especially in the younger voters, may even result in a higher voter turnout this year.

MEANWHILE, AS a struggling author, I have often wondered how one could get onto the bestseller list on Amazon. Well, it seems that one way to do it is to get your spouse to post anonymous reviews trashing all your rivals. This unique methodology was revealed recently when Dr Rachel Polonsky, a Cambridge don, spotted a rather scathing review by a mysterious “Historian” of her book on Russian culture, Molotov’s Magic Lantern, on Amazon. “Historian” dismissed Dr Polonsky’s efforts as being dense and pretentious — wondering why this book was ever published. However, “Historian” also showed a marked preference for the work of another Russian expert, a Professor at Oxford, Orlando Figes. Putting on her sleuthing cap, Dr Polonsky began trawling through the other reviews posted by “Historian” and found that “Historian” had also been similarly agitated when Professor Figes had lost out to Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher over a literary award. She also recollected a rather bad disagreement with Prof Figes about a critical review which she, in fact, had written of one of his previous books.
Digging deeper, she was convinced that the trail led to Prof Figes’ doorstep. However, when he was accused of having a hand in these nasty reviews, Prof Figes denied it all. Accusations and legal notices began to fly around — till suddenly, Prof Figes apparently discovered that it was his loyal wife, Dr Stephanie Palmer, a lecturer in Law from Cambridge University, who had been posting these reviews. Oh, the joys of having a loving but somewhat overzealous spouse!

The writer can be contacted at kishwardesai@yahoo.com

Kishwar Desai

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