January 2014: Sunanda Pushkar Tharoor’s death brings up questions about the private lives of Indian politicians.
The masala Twitter war between Sunanda Pushkar Tharoor and the Pakistani journalist she accused of having an affair with her husband erupted around the same time French President Francois Hollande’s affair with actress Julie Gayet was revealed by Closer magazine. It got me thinking about certain civilisations’ preoccupations with the sexuality and sex lives of their politicians—and India’s lack of it.
Think about it: in the late '90s, the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair was making global news, enticing passionate headlines and arguments, and almost had him impeached. The Indian prime minister around the time was an old single man with an ‘adopted’ daughter, known by all to be the biological child from the first marriage of his long-term live-in partner—but the media didn’t particularly care, neither did the people.
Let alone sex life, implying activity. We don’t even like to acknowledge that our politicians, like us, are sexual beings. Perhaps it is because, at the media explosion in the dotcom age, Rajiv Gandhi was long gone and most of our political leaders since have been octogenarian men, and that aspect of their lives is best left unimagined—no dishy Kennedys or Obama for us. Sure, there is the odd paternity suit and sting op CD, but surprisingly, even now, references to Rahul Gandhi’s (alleged) Colombian girlfriend are few and far between. What proportion of this silence from the media is fear of or complicity with our politicians?
Or it’s because we tend to deify the people we look up to, and would rather revere unidimensional gods than multidimensional men. A friend tells me that evidence of Jinnah’s non-Muslim wife, and his smoking and drinking have been removed in the official telling of Pakistan’s history; like the Father of Our Nation, he was retrospectively idealised. (This also explains why, in the South, the transition from movie star to politician appears effortless, a seemingly illogical transference of heroic attributes and popularity.) Note the way our female politicians drape their sarees, with not a sliver of sexy stomach on show—this when quite a few are former actresses. What the so deified and their audiences don’t acknowledge is that these constructs breed hypocrisy, because they are people: flaws, sex lives et al.
Leaders of liberal democracies sans dynastic politics—America, Australia, Britain, France—are not valued in isolation, but alongside their partners and families, and for conduct in their personal lives. Despite our family-centric society, whereas Michelle, together with her husband and as an individual, is in the public eye, Mrs Manmohan Singh shuffles quietly behind, nary a Femina article about her. It’s also noteworthy that, despite their far-right politics, many of our politicians have unconventional (if not downright sleazy though perhaps not Gaddafi-extreme) love-sex lives, much like men and women in power the world over, and details long suppressed about Gandhi’s strange sexual habits are now being outed in books.
Whatever its cause, into this agendered pseudo-genteel environment entered Sunanda Pushkar, as the third wife of one of our most suave new-breed politicians, who was also her third husband. With her looks and flashy dressing; public persona, PDA and personality; and businesses and dodgy mysterious past, she straddled many worlds. In Delhi circles, I am told, but I speak as a media consumer—loved her, hated her, you couldn’t ignore her. Together, Sunanda and Shashi made an ‘It’ couple, a veritable first in this generation’s political class.
And then came reports of her failing marriage, and the Twitter war with Mehr Tarar—juvenile? Dirty linen in public? Unnecessary? Her death soon after, fodder for a generation of conspiracy theorists. Natural? Unnatural? Murder? Suicide? Mistake! What about those bruises? Is this the birth of our very own Marilyn Monroe death conspiracy?
Despite Sunanda’s turbulent stardom and sad end, I think there was more about her and Shashi to admire than we give them credit for. Culturally, we need strong spunky female role models, women who will forge their own in environments where they have been silent before. “She behaved more like a flashy Bollywood trophy wife than an ambitious politician’s well behaved, soberly dressed spouse,” writes Shobha De. In many ways, by refusing to be, or let his wife be, typecast by her past, Sunanda was an interesting multidimensional female protagonist, and Shashi an inspiring, liberal man.
I’ve written repeatedly about the importance of love and its displays, most recently in ‘The Power—& Fear—of Love’. Notwithstanding the end, the couple showed an equal partnership, freely displayed their love and stood by each other in tough times. They were also handling a low point in their marriage with relative dignity (until the Twitter war)—I think this is important too, given that we suffer from unrealistic ideas of marriage, with our Cinderella Complexes and other unreal influences on mass culture, ranging from mythology, Bollywood and daytime TV. Marriages, even the happiest ones, have tough times, and sink or swim, it’s important to know how to deal with them.
When liberal lifestyles are on display by famous people, it is inspiring and culturally game-changing; this is how I feel about the Suzanne-Hrithik divorce as well. And when these famous people are policy-makers, who can be held accountable on a practice-what-you-preach front, this bodes well for cultural governance in the long term.
The public spat and Sunanda’s subsequent death, and reactions to both, could, hopefully, serve as a cautionary tale, if we choose to see it that way. Where does one draw the public-private divide? What about balancing impulsiveness and consequences? And what, if anything, is worth taking ones own life for? Suicide, if indeed hers was one, leaves nothing but pain, heartache and questions, as the media coverage has shown, and everyone should live to face another day no matter how bleak it may seem. For themselves, and the people left behind.
My condolences to Shashi and Sunanda’s son Shiv. And to Mehr, who won’t live this one down.
An edited version of this column appeared in Governance Now in January 2014.