“The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism”
– Norman Vincent Peale
Public service, which our politicians should be in, is ideally based on moral foundations. Which would essentially mean, that the service rendered should be by an individual who believes in justice, has a strong sense of right and wrong, and also, an undying will to ensure that the will and needs of the people are met within reasonable, legal boundaries.
But, as it is rightly said, public service is also somewhat of a contact sport. You fall. You score. You have your moments of glory. You have your moments of shame. You do things right, and sometimes you do things wrong. You have the world cheer you when you deliver that spark of brilliance and pull you down when you fail to deliver. The glory, or the shame, being non-permanent. The public servant, swinging like a pendulum, between being hailed as a messiah, to being brought down as a predator.
Indian politicians, especially the ones from the BJP, are far too familiar with this phenomena. There is a section of elite citizens, including journalists, who seem to find nothing right with the BJP. There is a section of its support base that thinks BJP does no wrong. But a larger, far more substantial base, that tends to toss bouquets and brickbats in equal measure. It is this section that constitutes the real strength of any democracy.
Sushma Swaraj is one such minister who has more often been hailed as a messiah than a predator. She has more often got the bouquets rather than the brickbats. A veteran politician and public servant who has embodied the spirit of service. She has pulled thousands out of terrible situations after she assumed the office of Minister of External Affairs. Her motherly empathy and astute political sense had made her the model minister and a tweet-away-help-desk for Indians stranded abroad.
But just as any contact sport, the Minister was bound to make a mistake. She is human, after all. And a mistake was done.
The Sadia Anas (formerly Tanvi Seth) passport issue and the manner in which it was dealt with, was frankly, a debacle. Many questions were left unanswered when Sushma Swaraj decided to step in and unceremoniously, not only give the woman a passport but also hound the passport officer who asked seemingly valid questions.
We asked why Sadia and her husband go from Noida to Lucknow for a passport when they were required to file same in Ghaziabad. We asked if she and her husband mentioned their marital status in their passport application form. We asked when it was not required by law, why did they provide the nikahnama, especially when the nikahnama had a different name than her legal name. We said if an officer raises a question when there is a difference in names provided, the query does seem valid. We asked whether they got their passports on such short notice without police verification because of the tweet. We asked whether a police verification would be done. After the verification came up empty, we asked if the issued passport would stand cancelled. Questions of national importance. Of security. Of sanctity of the process of providing the one document that authenticates an Indian citizens existence in the system.
And boy, did we get an answer. No sooner had the questions been asked, the rules of address verification itself got changed. The rule that police needs to physically visit the place of residence mentioned to confirm the authenticity of the address provided was scrapped, presumably, by the MEA.
For citizens who demand better from the government they elected, the anger was justified. For supporters who fight for the government so brutally hounded by the left cabal, the disappointment was justified. Under normal circumstances, the sane thing to do would have been for the minister to issue a statement saying the matter will be looked into. That the faith people have in the system, and in the astute minister, won’t be shattered.
Instead, the minister, and I hate to say this, took a leaf out of typical “liberal” playbook, where abuse is highlighted to drown out genuine criticism. It was a tool employed by self-styled liberals and celebrity journalists at least since 2011, and it was painful to see a fiery strong woman adopting the same trick, a good 7 years later. She ‘liked’ a bunch of tweets and asked the people whether they agree with the abuses met out to her. She even ran a Twitter poll. From her official handle. The handle of the External Affairs Minister which is monitored by dignitaries of the world.
Would anyone in their right frame of mind and with a shred of decency condone abuses met out, not just to the minister, but anyone at all? No. On a platform like Twitter, is there any way to understand how many abuses came from real, living, breathing, authentic people and how many were simply troll accounts to create a flutter? No. Is it normal (but unacceptable) for public figures, even unimportant ones like myself to be abused on Twitter? Yes. Do people remember the abuse handed out to our children, the abuses for expressing our cultural opinions, the politicians who issued rape and death threats, the obscene comments, the harassment, the abuse to Smriti Irani, the innumerable abuses to Narendra Modi or Arun Jaitley? Yes.
Was it incumbent upon the minister to ignore the abuses and focus on the questions being asked, in all humility, just like her colleagues Narendra Modi and Arun Jaitley do? Yes.
For a public figure almost using Twitter to run a portion of her Ministry’s responsibility, the use of the platform to highlight abuse and not address genuine questions is rather baffling. Perhaps, it becomes difficult for some individuals to handle criticism when they get so used to praise. Perhaps it became an ego battle. Perhaps it was an instinctive response to harsh words. And god knows, I understand the instinct to lash out when unkind words are spoken. But does this behaviour behove a senior minister? I would humbly, say not.
From where I stand, and perhaps, from where most people stand (unless those people are intellectual vultures looking to score political points), the entire fiasco looks like a smoke screen to ensure tough questions need not be answered. A false flag operation, so public memory, short as it is, forgets the terrible manner in which the Sadia Anas case was handled, and how Vikas Mishra, a passport officer doing his job, was transferred, hounded, and branded a bigot.
Several op-eds were written. The intellectual vultures demonised the ‘right wing’. None from the motley band of buffoons asked the pertinent questions and Vikas Mishra became a distant memory. The abuse was summarily attributed to the BJP support base without any sort of verification and Sushma Swaraj became the new liberal icon for the perfumed elite.
Perhaps Sushma Swaraj fails to realise that she is being used by the people who oppose her, her ideology, and her party, to get back at not only the Prime Minister but also their support base that fights the intellectual vultures on a daily basis. When Sushma Swaraj was abused by the very elites who turn her into an icon today for her Quattrochi speech in the parliament, it was these supporters who fought for her. When the elites criticised her for turning her ministry into a passport-help-desk, it was these supporters who hailed her work. When she was abused for denying visas to Pakistanis, the supporters shielded her. When the journalists maligned her for her prudence in the cases where Indians were held hostage by ISIS, it was these very supporters who rationalised her action and reasoned that what she did was in the interest of national interest.
She was right then.
Perhaps Sushma Swaraj has become so accustomed to praise, that she fails to realise, that the very supporters who fought for her, have the right to question her when she errs, and err she did. Perhaps she forgets, that the vultures, whose wings she seems to ride today, are the ones who maligned her when she did something right, and are hailing her today when she has erred because it serves their agenda of breaking the spirit of her party and its supporters.
Perhaps Sushma Swaraj rather be ruined by praise, than saved by criticism.
Perhaps she doesn’t realise that when she takes to Twitter and in a stunning display of juvenility, declares that a citizen “doesn’t need to wait to get blocked” and follows that with a prompt block, she alienates one voter. Perhaps she doesn’t realise that she is as responsible to that citizen as she is to the ones handing her the victim card today to skirt essential questions being asked.
It is time she realises that this drama has gone on long enough. It is time for her to answer real questions because no public servant can shield themselves from criticism and that it is her duty as a public servant to justify her actions to her voters. It is time she stops compromising the sanctity of her office by getting into petty Twitter quarrels.
If public service is a contact sport, it is time she either dusts herself off, stands up and gets back in the game or retires hurt.
Editor, OpIndia.com since October 2017