Political discourse hits new low

By Sunanda K Datta Ray

Whether or not NarendraModi returns as Prime Minister, the end of the LokSabha campaign will find him presiding over a sadly degenerated BharatiyaJanata Party. Lal Krishna Advani’s “Nation First, Party Next, Self-Last” blog was not only prescient but also poignant for being rooted in personal experience.


The past often appears rosy in retrospect, especially when the present is tinged with bitterness. Not everyone regarded Mr Advani in his heyday as the epitome of the “respect for diversity and freedom of expression” that he now says is “the essence of Indian democracy”. Morarji Desai’s Janata Party regime, when Mr Advani held the information and broadcasting portfolio, treated Indira Gandhi as an enemy rather than an adversary. If his exchanges as Leader of the Opposition with P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh indicated greater political decorum, it was mainly because of the Congress leadership.

Perhaps chivalry didn’t quite reach the heights of Saphadin, brother of the legendary Saladin, Sultan of Egypt and Syria, sending Richard the Lion Heart a fresh mount when his horse was wounded in battle in a 12th century crusade. But so great was trust and respect that Mr Narasimha Rao and Dr Singh discussed their revolutionary reforms with Mr Advani and obtained his blessings even before disclosing them to their Cabinet colleagues. It’s also impossible to imagine any BJP functionary today complimenting the Congress leadership on “taking more radical steps in one month than past governments in 43 years”, as Govindacharya, the general secretary, did in 1991.

Such cooperation has become unthinkable. The deterioration disfigures all parties but most of all the BJP, which has transformed itself into what Shatrughan Sinha calls “a one-man show and two-man army”. No saffron brigade politician would have the aplomb with which Rahul Gandhi brought the house down by declaring “I love NarendraModi” at last Friday’s packed interactive session in Pune. When some students chanted “Modi! Modi!”, a smiling Congress president responded: “It’s fine, no problem.” That mature insouciance was of a piece with the jauntiness with which Mr Gandhi once crossed over to the LokSabha treasury benches after thundering against the Prime Minister for nearly an hour and hugged the startled Mr Modi. “You can abuse me, you can call me Pappu, but I don’t have a speck of hatred against you. I will take this hatred out of you and turn it into love” — was his disarming explanation. Old hands may have recalled Jawaharlal Nehru’s friendly relations with opponents like Hiren Mukherjee of the CPI or the Swatantra Party’s MinooMasani.

Some might call it playacting. But playacting demands a measure of cordiality and a certain civilised level of behaviour. It indicates that the actor can set aside his primary concerns for the time being and expend thought and action on conveying goodwill. That was absent when Mr Modi twisted a student’s question in an attempt to ridicule Mr Gandhi and ended up by cruelly jeering at dyslexic patients. It didn’t go down well. “Mocking differently-abled people marks a new low in our political discourse” — was one tweeted criticism. There was no trace of humour either in the Prime Minister’s clumsy attempt to hammer out the acronym “sharab” from the names of three Opposition parties, Samajwadi Party, RashtriyaLok Dal and BahujanSamaj. A whole anthology can be compiled of similar graceless remarks by other BJP stalwarts that reflect poorly only on the speakers.

If Congress politicians seem on the whole to indulge less in such cheap cracks, it may be because for historical reasons many of them — at least at the top — tend to speak in English. Despite the social transformation of recent years, language is still largely a function of class and heredity. Listening carefully to the political discourse, it’s clear that politicians who use one of the Indian languages are generally more given to vituperative outbursts than their English-speaking colleagues. Language both shapes and reflects thinking. Many words and phrases that pass muster in Bengali or Hindi are impolite in English, which is burdened with the norms and values of England’s ruling elite. As Rajiv Gandhi once lamented, it was difficult explaining to GianiZail Singh in Hindi that he couldn’t sack the Prime Minister and Cabinet just because they were said to hold office at the “pleasure” of the President. Apart from the underlying the discipline of an English-speaking culture, the subtleties and nuances of the language impose their own restraints.

A related and perhaps more relevant factor is the SanghParivar’s ascendancy. Many mainline BJP politicians would probably shrink from the antics associated with organisations like the Bajrang Dal, Ram Sene, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and various JagranManches. It is also possible that the party entrusts its dirty work to roughs and toughs for whom religion means gharwapsi, lynching Muslims, attacking bars and discos, desecrating churches and pretending to elevate cattle above humans. The social milieu from which many vigilantes are drawn and their innocence of legislative or administrative responsibility also explain a licence that reeks of the streets rather than any office or debating chamber. It means nothing to them that scholastic independence is confined in the straitjacket of bigotry; they probably believe fervently in the absurd fantasies derived from myths and legends that make India the laughing stock of the world.

Clearly, Advani finds this vulgarisation caused by the overlapping of party and SanghParivar painful only because he feels victimised. But the vulgarisation is undeniable when adversaries are enemies and those who disagree are demonised as “anti-national”. The shift in tone evident in the poisoned rhetoric of senior leaders and their tasteless jokes at the expense of opponents — which is one of the most destructive developments of recent times. It doesn’t augur well for public life in the years to come.

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