Exposed by Vyapam scam deaths: Like other netas, Chouhan shows no empathy

Bhopal,Sandip Roy: It seems that Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has been put off his breakfast. The media reports that sources at the CM’s residence claim that Chouhan “skipped” his breakfast after finding reports of trainee sub-inspector Anamika Kushawa’s death splashed across the front page of the newspaper. Some lose lives, some lose their appetite. And that’s how it rolls in India.


Chouhan has vacillated between protesting “not all deaths should be linked to Vyapam” (true enough) and claiming credit by saying he “ordered” the probe with “pavitra intent” or pure intentions (more debatable). Remember, Lalu Prasad Yadav also claimed he ordered the investigation into the fodder scam in Bihar. But what’s indisputable is that Chouhan seems to be more aggressive about defending his besmirched honour than championing the cause of the families of the victims. Conspiracy or not, there are people dead and the Vyapam-linked death toll keeps rising. A little more public sympathy and genuine concern would go a long way. In a different time a politician would try to be seen close to the bereaved family as a sort of consoler-in-chief. In Vyapam, politicians are so busy trying to put as much distance as they can between the dead and themselves, that kind of empathy has become all but impossible.

Forget empathy, some of Chouhan’s colleagues seem to be trying to out-do each other in callousness, treating the dead as little more than nuisance factors, inconvenient headaches. A lot of people associated with the Vyapam scam are dead and a lot of people are legitimately anxious about it. Instead of reassuring them, the state’s Home Minister Babulal Gaur sounds downright dismissive when he waxes eloquent that “death is a natural occurrence. One who has been born will die. It’s mrityulok.” Asked if the spate of deaths bothered him, he replied “Pareshan hone wale hote rahe. Main to mast rehta hoon. (Those who get hassled, get hassled. I remain cheerful”).

Meanwhile his colleague Kailash Vijayvargiya adds to the general “cheerfulness” by joking about the dead journalist. When he faced flak for saying “Patrakar vatrakar kya hota hai … humse bada hai patrakar kya?” (What journalist are you talking about? Is there any one bigger than me?),” Vijayvargiya took offence and retorted “I was only joking and my sentiments are hurt.”

Vijayvargiya’s feelings are hurt. Chouhan is off his breakfast. And Gaur is cheerfully unfazed by the death toll. And they wonder why there’s little confidence in the SIT probe under way.

But it would be unfair to single out Madhya Pradesh’s leadership for empathy deficit disorder. This seems to afflict our politicians at large. Especially when they come to power. Mamata Banerjee as an opposition leader was truly the neighbourhood Didi. She was the first one at the house of a victim of Left Front atrocity. Singur and Nandigram worked so powerfully in her favour because they were exercises in empathy more than they were statements about economic policy. The Left Front was left looking like the cold callous bully.

After an infamous sexual assault and murder case in Bantala allegedly by CPI(M) goons, then CM Jyoti Basu had said dismissively “Anti-social acts like rowdyism, beating, dacoity happen everywhere. This (does) not mean that the situation of law and order in Bengal is poor.” Mamata sounds not so unlike Basu these days when she dismisses those upset with anything in Bengal as a conspiracy. “Ami shuney niyechhi. Apni beshi kotha bolben na, chope! (I’ve listened to everything. You don’t talk too much, shut up),” she once snapped at the village women in Kamdhuni surrounding her with their grievances about unlit roads and liquor dens. Flashes of the old Didi surface as when the AMRI hospital caught fire and she planted herself there on a plastic chair, supervising, coordinating, consoling. But that Didi seems increasingly far away.

Sheila Dikshit too showed singular lack of empathy when it came to her initial reaction to the Delhi bus gang rape. She told reporters that she had spoken to the transport department and cancelled the bus licence and if they wanted more they should talk to the police commissioner. What Dikshit failed to understand was that the need of the hour was not the mechanical cancellation of a license but outrage, shock, resolve. The people’s representative had failed to read and represent the people’s mood. She never quite recovered from that moment of imperious disdain.

When questioned about a spurt of assaults on women, an irked Uttar Pradesh CM Akhilesh Yadav told a reporter “Aapko toh khatra nahin hua? (it’s not as if you faced any danger?)” His father said those worried about crime in UP should just stay in Delhi.

And now the Law Minister Sadananda Gowda who had tweeted after the journalist’s death that he feels “really sorry” and it was a matter which “needs to be taken care of” has called the Vyapam scam a “silly issue” not worth of the PM’s comment.

What has become nakedly apparent is that leaders are so busy trying to save their own skins, their response to a tragedy becomes entirely about passing the buck. No one expects Shivraj Chouhan to crack the Vyapam case or Sheila Dikshit to nab a rapist in a bus or Akhilesh Yadav to ensure all women are safe in UP. Any more than anyone expects Barack Obama to solve racism and violence in the US after the church massacre in South Carolina. But when Obama delivered a eulogy and sang Amazing Grace, he lifted the conversation up and used his bully pulpit as a moment of introspection and self-reflection, naming each victim and declaring each “had grace”.

In Vyapam each victim, by contrast, finds their death dismissed, diminished, swatted away as irrelevant. For the opposition it’s a political football. For the government it’s more a liability than a casualty.And a Prime Minister happy to comment on everything else under the sun fails the empathy test as well by his silence here. Vyapam is not merely a Madhya Pradesh story anymore than the US massacre was just a South Carolina story.

Obama was doing what a leader is expected to do – feel your pain. And that is where our politicians have fallen glaringly short. Whether or not Vyapam is a conspiracy or confirmation bias, the political reaction reeks of amazing disgrace.