REPORTERS covering the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington and elsewhere, used to dealing with such serious issues as inflation, exchange rates and bail outs have been taken aback at the sudden turn of events. They are now writing about such things as sex, rape, chambermaids shouting for help and tall responsible gentlemen, being handcuffed and taken to prison on charges of sexual harassment. The IMF is looking for a new chief as the old one is under arrest awaiting trial. And there are curious crowds outside the Fund offices in the same building complex as the World Bank, waiting for the guillotine to fall.
The man in the limelight is a French economist called Dominique Strauss-Kahn or DSK, as he is generally referred to in France, who was IMF’s Managing Director until last month. I must say I had never heard of him, although he is supposed to be an economist of some renown, who had also been Finance Minister of France, and played an important role in the bail outs of Greece, Ireland and Portugal in the recent crisis. According to reports, Kahn was planning to enter the race for the Presidency of France on behalf of the Socialist Party and was apparently so popular that he was considered almost a shoo–in for the job.
Unfortunately, and this is where fate comes in, he was also a notorious womaniser and had been in a number of ugly scrapes with women of different ages, and had actually been warned by the IMF Board to watch his step or else. On the day he misbehaved with the hotel chambermaid, a lady from Guiana, he was about to leave for Paris to complete formalities in connection with the French presidential election and was about to take off for Paris when the New York police pounced on him and took him to a prison on an island. Kahn is now out on bail but locked up in a private house waiting for trial. If convicted, he faces a sentence of 25 years in jail, by which time he will be 87 years old.
To an Indian, this doesn’t make sense at all. A hi-fi international civil servant, who has been a cabinet minister in a powerful country like France, does not disappear from sight in a whiff of smoke, never to be seen again. Can you imagine a man like P Chidambaram or Kapil Sibal vanishing like that, no questions asked? In most countries, when such VIP’s are picked up wheels begin to move in high places, and the man is whisked away to safer places until things are normal. Things are apparently different in America. In New York, once the police get hold of you, not even the President of the United States can save you. When Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York, was asked how a VIP like Dominique Strauss-Kahn could be treated like a common criminal, he said, “If you don’t want to go to jail, don’t commit the crime.”
Dominique Strauss-Kahn is obviously a compulsive womaniser, just like compulsive pick-pockets and compulsive bigamists. But surely they don’t rise to such heights and handle billions of dollars and negotiate with Presidents and Prime Ministers. In other countries, they generally lie low or are advised to lie low, and if picked up by the police, get a few years and spend some time in prison before coming out. It’s all done in a very hush-hush manner. But how does a man of Kahn’s stature keep rising in his profession, while he goes on harassing young women in hotels from Paris to New York and gets off scot-free?
Magazines and newspapers in the West are having a field-day with lip-smacking stories of the serial womaniser whose crimes have at last caught up with him. They do not blame him, for, one suspects that many of the papers are edited or owned by people not very different from Kahn himself. There is hardly a politician, or, for that matter, a media tycoon, in the US and elsewhere, who has not been involved in sexual escapades of the Kahn variety, though not perhaps on the same scale. US Presidents John F Kennedy and Bill Clinton were notorious skirt-chasers. Both Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Dwight D Eisenhower had mistresses. So did Thomas Jefferson, America’s third President. It apparently runs in the family, and is very much a part of Western culture. You can go on acquiring women like some tribes collect beads, as long as it does not affect your work, and perhaps your family. What you do in your private space is your business, and nobody else’s. It did not affect Kennedy’s life nor did it interfere with Clinton’s life. Their wives didn’t leave them and their families didn’t disown them. It is a very convenient culture that leaves you absolutely free to do what you please, which is why our friend Kahn continued with it even into his 60’s when he was a grandfather and already had three wives.
Kahn had been caught a number of times before but managed to escape because of his reputation. He could not get away with it in New York because the police there don’t care for your reputation. Kahn was hand-cuffed, something they don’t do in Europe, and asked to stand in line, unshaven and unwashed, to be identified by the chambermaid, just like any other suspect, and just like they do in films. The police didn’t even know that he was connected with the IMF, and some of them had no idea what IMF was. You commit a crime and you become a criminal. And all criminals are the same, from Alaska to Hawaii!
Would such a thing have happened in India? I doubt it. Cell-phones would have gone off like temple bells from Mumbai to Delhi, half-a-dozen ministers would have been awakened from their beds, and the Prime Minister himself would have sat bolt upright all night to save the “poor man”. By dawn, the man would have been put on a plane and packed off to Dubai or some such God-forsaken place, where the Indian police could not reach him. And, after a decent interval, the man would have returned home, with a retinue behind him, to take up his old job, smiling all the time, as if he had won a Nobel Prize. In India, you are a criminal only if you are caught – and, of course, your friends make sure you are never caught.
Dominique Strauss-Kahn would still be in office, had he done in Delhi what he did in New York. Bad luck!