Dear President Pranab Mukherjee,
I write to you, though extremely reluctantly, about the passing of J. Jayalalithaa, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu; no, not about the adoring, the grieving or the head shaving crowds, for they feel a great loss. Nor is it about the government MLAs, including the new chief minister, uninhibitedly grovelling and pleading with Sasikala to become the chief minister. These MLAs – grown men and women – acted as if they had been orphaned and rendered impotent. Despite the humiliating scenes of the MLAs lining up to prostrate before Sasikala, reminding us that feudal fealty and slavery is well and alive in India, it is not about that I write because each of us is free to decide in a democracy how we behave in such situations.
Mr President, I waited for several days after Jayalalithaa’s death to write this note, as I too subscribe to the view that one mustn’t speak ill of the dead, even if the dead were in public life when alive. But then again, people in public life, elected or unelected, dead or alive, are by definition subject to public scrutiny. It is in that spirit of the public comment on public persons that I publicly convey my thoughts to you.
President Mukherjee, I could have written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi as well as many others, except the extremely vitiated and hyper-partisan Indian political discourse would have detracted from the gravity of what I am about to say.
Mr President, the office of the president is the highest constitutional authority in the country and you would be the first to agree, its occupant must always be guided by the highest moral and ethical standards. I must, with respect and sadness in my heart, state that it was a serious error on your part to call Jayalalithaa an “icon” despite the numerous serious allegations of corruption against her, the last of which, in a case alleging ownership of disproportionate assets, was at the time of her death still wending its way through the courts.
Mr President, I understand one could argue that though convicted several times, she was ultimately acquitted of all charges except in the disproportionate assets case pending before the Supreme Court of India. And in the end, she may or may not have been deemed guilty of the charges before the court. But you are well aware that guilt or innocence before the courts does not ever tell the whole story. The courts require guilt to be proven beyond reasonable doubt, and rightly so. The police often bungle the investigations – quite often deliberately; witnesses often recant or reaffirm testimony depending on which way the wind of power blows – as it happened in the Jaylalithaa case in the high court hearings in the case currently before the Supreme Court. Mr President, the truth is that the many acquittals of Jaylalithaa may have simply meant the prosecution had been unsuccessful in proving her guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
It wasn’t just you, Mr President. Prime Minister Modi, Manmohan Singh, the home minister Rajnath Singh, Arvind Kejriwal, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, Mamta Banerjee, Amitabh Bachan and many others – all good people, I assume – unhesitatingly joined in the blithe heaping of praise upon a politicians who, for all to see, had a questionable record of accumulation of personal wealth .
You may say Indians don’t want their president, prime minister or others to substitute his/her judgement for that of the courts. You do so all the time in cases where you commute the criminal inmates’ death sentences; you use the legal power allowed to you to override the death sentence.
Along with the many awesome legal powers of your office, including that of being the commander-in-chief, comes an unwritten responsibility of upholding the highest moral and ethical standards. In the case of the ethically challenged politicians – living or deceased, that unwritten moral and ethical obligation means withholding of presidential praise and tributes. Your office – that is you – should not have heaped unreserved praise on someone with such a spotty record in terms of her lack of probity vis-a-vis her finances. Your office commits a great mistake, perhaps an unpardonable sin, when it glorifies, in life or death, anyone and more particularly any politician who may have conducted himself/herself with less than unqualified probity.
Can an objective observer say with any confidence and certainty, that the late Ms Jayalalithaa conducted her personal finances with the absolute probity? “No” would be the honest answer. If so, why did you sully, however inadvertently or slightly, the high office you occupy by glorifying in death someone whose public life was of less than complete probity?