Society has strict Dos and Don'ts in place for those in public life, and when these are even inadvertently not adhered to, there can be consequences. (DC Image)
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been in trouble for partying, as has Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin. A leaked video showed the 36-year-old Marin dancing, singing and drinking at a recent party. She was criticized by several politicians after the video was released. One Opposition party leader even demanded that she take a drug test. Closer to home, few months ago, a leaked video of Rahul Gandhi attending a nightclub in Kathmandu sparked a political battle, with both sides exchanging heated words.
Rahul Gandhi and a viral video of him partying at a Kathmandu nightclub
Hard or soft partying, it appears, does not mix well with public service. Society has strict Dos and Don’ts in place for those in public life, and when these are even inadvertently not adhered to, there can be consequences.
Smita Sabharwal’s comment frowned upon
Even exercising personal freedom by taking a stand on certain issues can result in a backlash, as was recently demonstrated when IAS officer Smita Sabharwal was chastised for her statement regarding the remission granted to the accused in the Bilkis Bano case in Gujarat. Smita, also known as ‘The People’s Officer,’ took to Twitter to express her concern for Bilkis Bano. "As a woman and a civil servant, I sit in disbelief after reading the news about the #BilkisBanoCase," she tweeted. "We cannot deny her right to breathe freely without fear and still call ourselves a free nation. #JusticeForBilkisBano." (No government employee may criticise or speak out against the government’s policies, according to the service rules.)
Experts weigh in
"Anyone who enters public service understands that they will have to give up a lot of their personal time. Each public servant, however, must create his or her own Lakshman Rekha. The perception of what the right thing to do is differs from one public figure to the next," says Dr S. K. Joshi, former Chief Secretary of Telangana.
"In today’s world, where everyone lives in glass houses, scrutiny is very easy. While enjoying your private life, make sure that no public resources are used, that the venue is preferably outside your jurisdiction, and that you do not engage in any activity or behaviour that is frowned upon by society," is his advice.
"With regard to criticism of the government by a public servant, it is unacceptable as civil servants are meant to be neutral. It is our responsibility to follow the process. We have no business publicly criticising the government. It could set off a chain reaction which could have disastrous consequences for society," adds Dr Joshi.
But what level of revelry would be considered inappropriate for a public figure or for someone in political power?
"I see nothing wrong in the Finnish PM letting her hair down in a private social gathering. She voluntarily took a drug test and has been cleared. So nothing illegal happened," feels Mohan Guruswamy, Chairman & Founder, Centre for Policy Alternatives.
With regard to Smita Sabharwal, Guruswamy says she was right to express her personal view on a matter of great social importance. "Being a civil servant does not strip an individual of their freedom to express themselves, as long as their views are not in variance with those of the government they are serving. It should also not be politically partisan. How does a comment on the premature parole of rape-cum-murder convicts impinge on her functions as a civil servant?" Guruswamy asks.
Public servants are frequently chastised for expressing themselves and acting in ways that are deemed inappropriate to their positions. There are those who argue that public figures have the right to have fun as long as it does not interfere with their work.
"They have the right to privacy, especially when surrounded by family and friends. It’s also fine to do it in public as long as it’s not illegal or offends any group or community. However, if she (Finland PM) was projecting an image of being serious rather than carefree, she burst her own image. Even then, there is no need for the public or politicians to make a big deal out of it. They can only raise an eyebrow," said Konda Vishweshwar Reddy, BJP politician.
Meanwhile, Marin has received widespread support from Finnish women, with hundreds posting videos of themselves dancing and partying in support of the prime minister, using the hashtag ‘solidarity with Sanna.’
"The private lifestyle that persons in public office choose for themselves is culture specific," explains political commentator and policy analyst Sanjaya Baru. Western societies, he feels, are more permissive and offer more space for privacy than is the case in India. "Even in the West, Europeans tend to be more relaxed and less hypocritical than the Americans. In India we take this hypocrisy too far. I don’t see any reason why public figures cannot enjoy privacy and have a private life of their own," he says.
Finland’s Prime Minister has received a negative result in a drug test she took to "clear up suspicions" after a video of her partying sparked criticism.
"A drug test administered to Prime Minister Sanna Marin on August 19, 2022, did not reveal the presence of drugs," Marin's office said in a statement, adding that the results were signed by a doctor.
According to Iida Vallin, special adviser to the Prime Minister, Sanna Marin's urine sample was tested for the presence of various drugs such as cocaine, amphetamine, cannabis, and opioids.