BANWARILAL PUROHIT COMES from the good old stock of Indian politicians who nurture a constituency, whose ideology is malleable, who survive by reading the political wind and then unfurling their sails in that direction. Even if they find themselves occasionally forced into the wilderness, they don’t fade away, bouncing back sooner or later to stand beside whichever dispensation is in power. It is a skill that most politicians aspire to but only a few are successful at. Purohit, undoubtedly, is one of them, as his career has so amply demonstrated. Beginning with the Congress and having represented the party in Parliament, he joined the BJP when its fortunes were on the upswing during the Ram temple movement. He then switched back to the Congress, started his own outfit, then returned to the BJP, finally capping his innings as a governor, first of Assam and now Tamil Nadu.
In this, he was ably assisted in being the owner of a newspaper, The Hitavada, which has influence in central India, especially Nagpur, where Purohit has his core following. He was also managing editor of the newspaper. As a cunning politician in tune with the sensitivities of public life, and also as someone who is aware of the temperament of journalists, Purohit, you would think, would know the acceptable codes of decent behaviour. That, alas, is not how it has turned out, as evident in a recent incident where he comes across as someone trapped between being arrogant and creepy.
The facts of the story are as follows and they make for somewhat strange reading. As governor, Purohit is also the vice-chancellor of Madurai Kamaraj University. An assistant professor of a college has been accused of trying to make four girl students have sex with a senior official. Arrested after a complaint by the girls, an audio clip allegedly of one of her conversations also finds mention of the governor. As The News Minute reports, ‘At one point in the conversation, the professor even claims to have access to the ‘Governor’. “I sent you videos of governor coming, do you remember? Certain incidents happen. Governor is not a grandfather. You know how close I was to the Governor. I can now be more liberal but people outside won’t know. If I tell you who it is, you will give me answer faster. They will maintain secrecy and privacy to that level,” she is heard saying.’
Purohit is denying any involvement and meanwhile is also accused of trying to scuttle a fair probe. It would have followed the usual twists and turns of a regular Indian sex scandal, if he had not suddenly pulled a fresh controversy out of his hat. Or hand, rather. To a question by a female reporter from The Week, Purohit, instead of answering, reached his hand across and patted her cheek. She described the incident later on the magazine’s website: ‘The press conference was almost over. And when he got up from his chair, a TV reporter quickly managed to grab his attention and asked him about how much progress he had in learning Tamil. Purohit had earlier spoke about his interest in learning the language. He was happy to answer the question. “Thamizh oru inimaiyana mozhi (Tamil is a very sweet language),” he said. I was standing next to him. “Who is your Tamil teacher,” I asked him… Banwarilal Purohit didn’t reply, but moved a step forward. My next question to him was the one that he had refuse to answer earlier. “Sir, you said you are satisfied with the government’s performance. Are you satisfied when it comes to the performance of universities too,” I asked him. He didn’t hear me at all. Instead, he patted on my left cheek and got away. It was a crowded press conference, and I was transfixed for a moment by that gesture… I rushed to the washroom and washed my face several times.’
Journalists united in protest, opposition leaders tweeted against him, and Purohit made matters worse by issuing a clumsy apology in a letter to the reporter, saying that the gesture was because of how good the question was. He wrote, ‘…I gave a pat on your cheek considering you to be like my granddaughter. It was done with affection and to express my appreciation for your performance as a journalist, since I was also a member of that profession for about 40 years.’
No one has bought this explanation, certainly not the reporter. If the question was good, then the minimum appreciation is to answer it, not invade the physical space of the questioner. That is done to evade or humiliate, understandable emotions that cornered politicians feel towards the media. But the jousting is usually oral. Either he was foolishly bold or so incensed that he lost his mind. In any case, the end result has been his own public humiliation.
Many politicians have little conception of how Indian society is changing when it comes to tolerating bad behaviour but from a governor at least there is an expectation of decorum. If Purohit thinks it is alright to behave with a journalist as he would with a granddaughter, then the reverse should also be appropriate. Reporters can hang on his shoulders at a press conference and ask him to take them for a walk.