Just the other day the United States Supreme Court ruled that money=speech, and if speech is to be free, money should be able to talk as much as it wants and declare its political preference without any curbs. In other words, there can be no limits on political contributions during an election campaign and, presumably, at other times as well.

In yet more words, the court has eliminated another source of corruption at the same time that it extends the ambit of free speech. Whoever first said money talks was prescient.

Indians can only dream of such judicial generosity. Our courts are full of grumpy socialists who consider an entrepreneur only one step removed from murderer. So politicians have to be practical. But they’ve got it worked out. If the law forbids something they don’t make a song and dance about it or challenge it. Why tilt against windmills? Just walk around them. It’s a lot better, actually, because this way doesn’t challenge the moral consensus. That’s pure genius if you think about it; we preserve our lofty ideals and do business as usual at the same time. So let’s not forget that politicians often give us the best of both worlds. They get far less credit than they deserve.

It’s surprising how often people forget that last point. Turn on any TV channel and you’ll hear bile-filled diatribes against politicians by anyone and everyone, even people who should know better. It’s like watching an episode of Crime Patrol, only a politician is in the starring role. It’s open season, especially now. But there are others who are worse, if anything, like the fat Bangalore businessman who bought himself a Rajya Sabha seat and has probably committed every civil and criminal offence in the businessman’s handbook. This is a man who hasn’t paid employees salaries for nearly two years, but the only time the media got worked up was when he spent ₹14 crore on a fading cricketer. Nor did they think of looking at the affairs of that cricket-mad family man from UP who’s now in jail courtesy the Supreme Court.

Politicians, on the other hand, are fair game even when it’s patently unfair play. Everyone says they’re the scum of the earth but no one bothers to provide proof. It’s supposed to be self-evident, like the statement that all men are born equal. No one seems to have told that to African Americans or Dalit Indians.

One of the things most people consider as evidence is the money that features in an election. The official limit is ₹70 lakh, actual spending much more. Every intelligent politician admits that. So the universal cry is that the process is riddled with corruption, with the politician at the centre. That isn’t exactly true; it’s the voter who’s at the centre of the money trail and it’s not about buying his preference either. Much of the money is spent is to ensure his comfort in the hard scrabble of the campaign.

Take the case of a public meeting. The people who attend it sometimes travel as much as 50 kilometres to and from the place, in blazing heat this year. Most of these venues are basically like pasture land, no amenities, like being marooned on a desert island. It’s not like

Chandni Chowk or Triplicane, with six food stalls on every street. How can anyone expect people to fend for themselves when there’s nothing to be had even for money? And let’s not forget that many of these people don’t have much money. So they get food and water, and if it’s biryani on the menu why should anyone curl their lip? Yes, they also get some cash to compensate for the loss of a day’s work. It’s just common decency, not a bribe, as so many of these people can’t afford to lose that wage. That doesn’t mean they’re selling their vote. No sane candidate makes that mistake. Call it just one way of encouraging people to realise their power. As the state doesn’t seem bothered to encourage political activism, the politician takes on that burden. For taking the trouble to do that, he or she has to listen to invective from every Tom, Dick and Harry.

If the same sort of thing came from a non-governmental organisation or corporation they’d be praised to the skies for their enlightened interest. They could even claim a tax break on account of corporate social responsibility. But let a politician do the same thing and it’s corrupt practice. All they get for their pains is sleuths from the Election Commission on their tail and the threat of a CBI enquiry afterwards. They can’t win even when they win.

One thing is true, though. Truth is often lost in the heat of battle. Everyone exaggerates, sometimes straining the bounds, as the man with a 56-inch chest. That’s beyond king-size by any reckoning. Even Superman measures only 44 inches.

It’s worth noting that most of the griping comes from the limousine liberal class, for whom everyone scrambles to lay on everything anyway. But no one describes it as vote-buying. It’s obviously nothing of the sort but why do they crib when a poor man gets the same treatment? Of course, it’s possible they don’t know the real costs of attending a political rally or being part of a political movement. That is usually because they don’t pay for anything, including lunch, but no one should mistake it for freebies. After all, they’re on a mission to discover the common man and his life, so why quibble over a few amenities? Their motives are pure, their conduct noble. But the mistake they make is in thinking the common man who can’t be part of a political movement except if he sees a profit. It’s an established thesis even if the proof is slow in coming. But they’re ready to explain the point at length. The only problem is it’s hard to understand the argument. There’s a shortage of people as bright as them so they’re constantly misunderstood.

One thing is true, though. Truth is often lost in the heat of battle. Everyone exaggerates, sometimes straining the bounds, as the man with a 56-inch chest. That’s beyond king-size by any reckoning. Even Superman measures only 44 inches. It’s a number that would leave even Dolly Parton reeling in envy. On second thought she might not, because carrying it around everywhere would require serious engineering assistance. Besides, what does it profit a man to have those dimensions?

Some people would say he needs that volume to generate all the hot air that’s keeping the Lotus floating above everything else in this election. Certainly, there’s no shortage of words or breath for invective at rallies, interviews, even conversations. Poll-watchers have observed with awe that everything is grist to his mill, whether it’s the economy, the cricket team, Mamata Banerjee’s temperament or global warming, and he has an answer to every insult or allegation. It doesn’t have to make sense. It just has to keep coming non-stop. His opponents seem to be giving up in sheer exhaustion. They can’t handle the pace. If it continues like this he’ll be the last man standing. The reasons, of course, may be other but surely it cannot be doubted that the maximum volume is occupied by Narendra Damodardas Modi.

Maybe that’s what is bothering another heavyweight politician in Tamil Nadu. She’s been tearing into his record and his claims in the hope, no doubt, of bringing him down a peg or two to eye level. She’s also promised everyone everything, from free wi-fi zones to discounted 20-litre water bottles to a solution to unspecified pending border disputes, but the problem is that Modi seems to have reached the point of zero gravity and keeps afloat without effort. Sticks and stones fall to the ground long before they can reach him. Maybe that’s also why nothing sticks to him. He’s “in the zone”, as Pistol Pete used to say.

At the moment he seems larger than life, but India was never short of people who loomed larger than life until the austere gentlemen who head the Election Commission decided to bring them down to earth. They are so cursed with a sense of mission that they have no time for fun and games. These days, for instance, if you’re walking down a street in Chennai you don’t get the feeling that Big Brother or Sister is watching you at every nook and corner. Or if you do you can be sure there’s a new movie in town. That’s a bit grey if you think about it. Elections used to be fun, now they’ve become everyone’s bounden duty.

The commission has also made all our jobs harder. Previously we saw the leader everywhere and that was the cue, plain and simple. Now we’ll also have to listen to the message, whatever that is, filtering it out from a mass of competing voices and then decide which button to push. What you see is not the same as what you hear. What if the 80-foot leader has a squeaky voice? Isn’t there a chance that you might be put off? Is that fair?

Some people, of course, don’t need these artificial pedestals. They carry their own virtual version. They are not only larger than life but may even be stranger than fiction. Our very own Didi from West Bengal is so blessed with an awareness of her uniqueness that when the Election Commission had the temerity to order her to transfer some officials she put her foot down so hard that it could be heard across the country despite the rubber flip flops. Alas, she forgot that at this point they are like The Great Dictator, sanctioned by the Constitution, no less. She had to do a back-flip, but then she got an unexpected bonus from a fire in her hotel room.

That allowed her to kick and scream at the rank carelessness of the security detail as “Law and order in the state is now under the absolute superintendence, direction and control of the EC, which has failed in its duty”. That’s a reason for happiness. Another no doubt is the thought that she has a new enemy who wants to finish her off and bring an end to the “poriborton” being inflicted on West Bengal. Like every true warrior she considers the day wasted if she can’t find a windmill to disagree with. The fight is what it’s all about. And those sneering pseudos should realise that until today she hasn’t met an enemy she couldn’t beat. Even her worst detractors say that the only she can defeat herself. That’s a puzzle she hasn’t cracked as yet unlike, say, Yeddyurappa.

Electoral roles come in all sizes, from extra-large to positively petite, and that’s as it should be, but what do you do when King Kong morphs into Andy the Ant? You could get a stand-in wearing a costume and everyone pretends nothing has happened. But what if there’s no stand-in, no costume? There’s only one word that fits the case and it can’t be uttered in polite society. But the feeling is a familiar one, like climbing the first rung of a ladder in the dark, only to discover there’s no rung and that the ladder is just a couple of poles propped up against the wall.

This is when you discover that the family jewels are made of paste and Prince Charming is just an advertisement for a fairness cream. He’s been described as young, dynamic (a few nasty people add the word dynastic) and the hope of the future, but right now Rahul Gandhi looks like a deer caught in the headlights of a moving truck, about to be mowed down by a thundering behemoth with a voice like a foghorn.  No wonder so few are inclined to hold the Hand. In fact most of the people who hung on to it all these years are now holding their heads.

For the first time in 10 years the First Family looks bereft, watching its house fall apart brick by brick, unable to do anything. Even the usual comforting gaggle of family retainers is missing. Maybe it’s a good thing because the sounds of the street won’t be muffled by the Siren Song of the Sycophants which runs on an endless loop. But it’s a bad time for a reality check, even a little one. Waking the sleepwalker suddenly is never a good idea.

Sadly for the Gandhis, there’s no one left to blame as the building is empty. Those who haven’t chosen exile and oblivion are fighting for the Lotus, or anyone who’ll have them. There’s a time to hang on and a time to let go. The ship is sinking, the deck is listing. But eventually they know that it’ll be refloated and then it will need a crew. Who better than those who loyally filled in the vacuum with on-the-job training elsewhere at no cost to the company? One thing you have to say for the loyalists, they’re always looking out for the family even when they’ve turned their backs.

It must be a source of comfort to the family that they have so many devoted followers. Once they’ve finished rebuilding everyone will return to their places and order will be restored. That’s what everyone hopes. Still, it helps to be prepared for the worst. Maybe that’s Modi’s biggest secret.

He put the worst behind him when he reached the ether; from that height he can see ahead so that’s why he’s so far in front.