India is in the midst of a new political controversy, which has been dubbed “Slapgate.” It started yesterday, in the heart of the nation’s capital, New Delhi. Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, a political heavyweight and top leader of the Maharashtra-based Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), was slapped by a young Sikh, Harvinder Singh, who was shouting slogans against soaring prices and corruption.
Singh had already last week attacked former Union Minister Sukhram when the 86-year-old ex-telecoms minister was sentenced to five years imprisonment for corruption. Singh reportedly brandished a small knife and expressed regret that he wasn’t carrying his kirpan (a long knife that Sikhs often carry on their person).
The controversy was fuelled further a few hours later, when sound bite hungry TV reporters asked Gandhian social activist Anna Hazare for his reaction to Pawar getting slapped. Hazare laughingly asked: “One slap only?” before walking away. The comment sparked widespread condemnation and has painted the 74-year-old anti-corruption campaigner in a poor light. Hazare sought to wriggle out of this repeatedly televised remark, saying that actually he was simply trying to confirm how many times Pawar had been slapped, and whether he had been injured. Uncharacteristically, Hazare also said he was willing to apologize to Pawar.
The Slapgate scandal continued to be felt in parliament today as condemnation of the attack among lawmakers cut across party lines. Perhaps more importantly, a large number of MPs from parties including the Communist Party of India (CPI), Communist Party of India (Marxist), Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) castigated Hazare for his intemperate remarks.
Such criticism of Hazare is unprecedented, and has a number of implications. One is that Hazare is not seen as the second Gandhi his supporters would like to believe he is. Complicating things for Hazare is the fact that Slapgate follows another controversial statement only a few days ago, when Hazare suggested that those who consume alcohol should be beaten up. Second, the latest furor underscores the reality that Hazare does not speak for the entire country, despite the tone of his pronouncements.
The Pawar episode couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for the UPA government, as it gives it an opportunity to close ranks with its ally, the NCP. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh lost no time in telephoning Pawar, condemning the attack and expressing his solidarity with Pawar.
The impromptu parliamentary debate on Slapgate, meanwhile, focused on another foible in the Indian system: the electronic media’s fixation with trying to improve their Television Rating Points. Many MPs assailed the media for blowing things out of proportion and sensationalizing the event by showing the clip hundreds of time.
Certainly, the incident has given the country some food for thought over how both the media and Hazare have been conducting themselves. It’s ironic that while the media was quick to inflate Hazare’s importance by jumping on the activist’s bandwagon, it may now be the undoing of his reputation.