Do not Hang Them, Blacken their Faces
Posted on 1-November-2011
In 1971, Richard Nixon, elected President of the USA three years earlier on the promise of winding down the Vietnam war, and his National Security Adviser/Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger had not only intensified the bombing of North Vietnam and Laos and expanded the fighting into Cambodia, but his administration was also engaged in various stratagems for misleading the US Congress and the American people. Many of the prevarications about the war had started much earlier under Lyndon Johnson. Public revulsion in the USA against the war was intense. The leaking in that year by Daniel Ellsberg, an employee of the Pentagon during the late sixties who had had access to some of the most secret documents about the war, of many of these documents which came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, aroused the anger and hostility of the White House. It tried unsuccessfully to get a court to block the publication of these documents by the New York Times. The White House then organised burglaries in the offices of Ellsberg and his psychiatrist in the hope of finding documents to show that he was of unsound mind and thus raise questions about his credibility. Ellsberg was tried on charges of espionage and acquitted. The publication of the Pentagon Papers set off a chain of events leading to the ignominious shipwreck of the Nixon administration. Daniel Ellsberg was among a handful of people who emerged as heroes.
Early during the American presidential election of 1992 there came out reports about a couple of sexual peccadilloes of Bill Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate. He rode those scandals out. Then there were brought out stories about his having smoked cannabis when a student which Clinton brushed off saying he had puffed at the drug but had not inhaled. Finally there came out a story that Clinton had dodged draft during the Vietnam war. But then it was quite credibly shown that US State Department had improperly combed Clinton's passport records in order to establish draft dodging. It is more than probable that the administration of George H. W. Bush, the incumbent President, had a hand in the publication of all these reports. Nonetheless, Bill Clinton was elected President in November 1992.
In 2003, Andrew Gilligan, a BBC Radio newsman, broadcast a report based on his conversations with a source in the government saying that the government had embellished intelligence reports about weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein's Iraq in a document submitted to the British House of Commons. This happened at a time when in the United Kingdom, the United States of America and elsewhere in the world questions had started being asked about the legitimacy of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. The fury of the British Government was unleashed against the BBC and Andrew Gilligan. Both were compelled to name their source: David Kelly, a scientist working for the Defence Department which soon thereafter 'outed' Kelly. Kelly was put under ruthless pressure, most notably by Andrew Mac Kinley, a Labour Member of Parliament. There were newspaper reports raising questions about Gilligan's competence as a journalist and about Kelly himself having any direct knowledge of the matters on which he had talked to Gilligan. This episode closed with the death of David Kelly, determined by the coroner to be a suicide, and with the resignation of Andrew Gilligan as well as the Director General and the Chairman of the Board of Governors of the BBC. But it also did irreparable damage to the credibility of the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair and of his spin doctor in chief.
The habit of using governmental machinery for maligning dissidents, inconvenient officials or political opponents is not a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon disease. In Italy, magistrates and prosecutors handling high level corruption or links between politicians and Mafiosi have been regularly targeted by government led smear campaigns or worse, while in France, as recently as 2004, people around President Jacques Chirac were obviously involved in an effort, through the Clearstream affair, to raise questions about the integrity of Nicholas Sarkozy who nonetheless got elected President of France as a candidate of Chirac's own political party. And, the record of India, the world's largest democracy, is no less impressive. To find examples it is not necessary to go too far back in time. In 1986, V.P. Singh, an important member of the Rajiv Gandhi government till then, resigned from the government and the ruling party and started his campaign against corruption in high places, more specifically bribery of Indian government officials and politicians in the purchase of howitzers for the Indian army from the Swedish gun maker Bofors. As the campaigned gathered strength, so did the efforts of the ruling establishment to destroy V.P. Singh's reputation. In the beginning, the ruling party's spokesmen started telling stories or inspiring newspaper reports about how V.P.Singh came to inherit his zemindari and then later even about how Singh's own wife had in a court of law raised questions about his soundness of mind. Then in mid 1989 stories appeared in a newspaper in the Gulf about V.P.Singh's son, Ajeya Singh going to a bank in the Caribbean island territory of St.Christopher and Nevis (St.Kitts) and depositing a few million US dollars there. Eventually, an official from the Enforcement Directorate of India was sent to St.Kitts to get a statement from the banker about the deposit made by Ajeya Singh, and the Ministry of External Affairs was used, on directions from higher quarters as the Indian Minister of External Affairs of the time was to say later, to notarise the signatures of the banker on that statement before it was tabled in the Lok Sabha. Yet, none of this could prevent the election of V.P. Singh as the Prime Minister of India in December 1989.
And then the present. In April this year, Anna Hazare, a social activist from Maharashtra , Shanti Bhushan, a lawyer and a former Law Minister of India, his son Prashant Bhushan, also a lawyer, Arvind Kejriwal, an official until 2006 of the Indian Revenue Service and now a campaigner for transparency and probity in public life, Santosh Hegde, a former judge of the Indian Supreme Court, Kiran Bedi, a former police official and now a social activist of many descriptions and a few others joined together to ask for immediate legislation for the establishment of a strongly empowered ombudsman, a Lok Pal, to deal with corruption in government. Because this happened at a time when the government was flailing about in a swirl of corruption scandals, Hazare's campaign evoked wide public response. A failed negotiation between the government and the Hazare team and four months later Hazare and the people around him resumed their campaign in Delhi in the middle of August. This time the public response to the campaign, seen as a movement against corruption in public life, received even wider and more massive public support. After the government gave an undertaking that a law establishing a strong Lok Pal will be passed before the end of the present year, the campaign shifted to a lower gear. In the mean time unfavourable stories about Anna Hazare, Shanti Bhushan, Prashant Bhushan, Arvind Kejriwal, Kiran Bedi and Kumar Biswas, a college teacher and one of the prominent faces around Anna Hazare have been aired by spokesmen of the Indian National Congress and the news media with remarkable regularity. While it is difficult to say that government agencies could have been used for putting out stories against Hazare, Kiran Bedi or Kumar Biswas, the stories against Shanti and Prashant Bhushan and Arvind Kejriwal could not have been put out without the involvement of some government agencies. The Bhushan duo, it was alleged at first, had manoeuvred to acquire land in Allahabad and Noida below market price or out of turn. Then it was put out that Shanti Bhusan had been found to have discussed with a politician of very low credibility how to influence the judgment in a certain case before the Supreme Court of India and a recording of a telephone conversation was also produced in support of this claim. The Bhushans have given out their side of the story on the land purchases in Allahabad and Noida and they have challenged the authenticity of the recording of the telephone conversation. In all the three cases the Bhusans have been accused of breaking the law and nothing prevents the government or governments from taking legal action against them. No such move has been made against them. Kejriwal's story is even more bizarre. He quit his government job in 2006. In all such cases the claims of employees or government's claims against them are usually settled within a few months of resignation or retirement. But in Kejriwal's case it is now, five years after he left his government job that the department he was employed in is asking him to pay them 900,000 rupees as money owed to them. These six people are in the public eye and obviously they will do what they think necessary for clearing their names in the eyes of the people. But the very timing of all these stories bespeaks a deliberate effort by the ruling establishment to raise questions about their credibility and integrity. Whether this effort will succeed will depend on how much credibility the government itself has with the people.
Autocratic governments imprison, torture, kill dissidents, political opponents and inconvenient officials or force them into exile. Democracies believe themselves to be a higher form of civilisation. They should in theory be tolerant of dissent and opposition and function by persuasion, deriving legitimacy from as wide popular support as possible. But because in reality nearly all modern democracies are oligarchies, polyarchies, plutocracies or kleptocracies, those elected to office sooner or later tend to forget the people who elect them and do not like being reminded of them. They become intolerant of criticism, dissent or opposition. Their system of government does not permit them to torture or kill opponents and dissidents. They habitually use the levers of power to blacken their faces instead. But when the tide of public opinion turns against a ruling set in power, such tricks do not work. Another set is then elected and when later it faces opposition it does not hesitate to use the same tricks. As one wise man has said, albeit facetiously, the most important lesson of history is that nobody learns from it.
There is yet cause for hope. Modern democracies, based on universal adult suffrage and wide participation by people are barely one hundred years or less old. The system is still evolving and the most significant advances towards enlargement of people's participation will in future, as in the past, come under popular pressure. We may be on the cusp of some important changes. The tea party and occupy wall street movements in the USA, similar protests in the UK, in Italy and in Japan and protests in Greece against the government's austerity measures, which have now led the Greek government to announce a referendum on the latest bailout package from the EU, or Anna Hazare's movement in India may still be inchoate. They may or may not succeed. But probably time has come for democracies to change themselves and their institutions so as to make them more responsive to common people's needs, desires and aspirations. In the mean time those in power everywhere may ponder whether there is not room in government for more morality and greater concern for the welfare of all the people and whether governments should free themselves from the grip of special interests.