Disagreements between politicians and ministerial colleagues across and within parties is not a 21st century phenonmenon. When India’s first prime minister and home minister disagreed, they shot letters to each other through their private secretaries. “Nehru and Patel had a tradition of common work. Their clash was a clash of ideas,” said sociologist Shiv Vishvanathan.
With the Emergency, the respect for dissent, vital in a democracy, took a hit, said veteran columnist Kuldip Nayar. Public spats between Raj Narain, a Janata Party leader, and Indira Gandhi were common, he added.
Civil language, or a standard of decency in public debate, has gradually been given the short shrift. With no real difference between political parties, politicians take recourse to posturing on all sorts of issues, said social scientist Yogendra Yadav. For example, a blast in Bihar becomes the occasion for Digvijaya Singh to pump up potential Congress ally Nitish Kumar. After anointing Rahul Gandhi a “Mr Golden Spoon”, Narendra Modi also urged a comparison of “a five-term of Congress with a five-term of the BJP”.
Verbal sparring has replaced substantive discussion. This attitude, perhaps, is a byproduct of 24X7 television with its structure of debates and soundbite-ry. The public lives of politicians have not been unaffected by it.
As an article in the UK Telegraph put it: “To shine in leadership debates before a general election, you need the characterestics of a plausible tart.”
The cheapening of public discourse is also due to a change in news consumption. When conventional newspaper reading is in competition with quick responses, sms-es, repartee and rebuff on social media rather than detailed solutions to issues, it gives birth to a culture of “sensationalism, trivialisation and domination”, said Saima Saeed, associate prof, Centre for Culture, Media and Governance, Jamia.
“The debate is not important but that you are in it… What will be interesting in the upcoming elections is to see how the voter responds to the conflicting messages being floated by the same party,” she said. “Everyone’s speaking with a forked tongue.”
War of words:
Read: Poison-tipped words are new poll weapon
Read: The foot in mouth epidemic and 140-character assassinations