Raucous, chaotic, colourful, entertaining — Indian elections are all these things. But one thing candidates used to shy away from was getting personal. In recent times, particularly in this bitterly-fought election, there are no Queensbury rules it would seem. It is a no-holds-barred slugfest which has caused much tut-tutting among the chattering classes.
But, I like to think that our politics is now beginning to match that in western countries. Do you remember how opponents had a field day listing the intimate details of former US president Bill Clinton’s affairs? Or the issue of Dubya’s fondness for a drop or two though the poor man had given up drinking about 20 years before he stood for election. Then we had the issue of Barack Obama having smoked a certain substance during his college days and also the issue of his birth certificate which was taken up in crusade mode by the coiffeurly-challenged Donald Trump.
In England, the late Margaret Thatcher’s husband’s fondness for a gin and tonic was always sure to raise a titter among the public as was Tony Blair’s partiality to the high life. After office, his alleged fondness for a media baron’s ex-wife made all the tabloids and was hugely relished by the fish and chips eating classes. So, we have fallen a bit in our lofty standards, but I am not so unhappy about it. Why should we not know about the peccadillos — though we have not quite come to that — of our electoral aspirants?
Initially, there were gasps of horror when Maneka Gandhi raised the issue of Sonia Gandhi’s wealth, when Subramanian Swamy rabbited on about Priyanka’s Gandhi’s drinking. Many Indians consider a person who drinks an occasional cocktail an alcoholic. Of course, these are reprehensible, but they are par for the course in other countries. The Congress has gone hell for leather against Mr Narendra Modi allegedly not having owned up to his wife earlier. Amit Shah is accused of stalking, Amarinder Singh of being a very late riser, Rahul Gandhi of being childish, LK Advani of being a subversive, and so on. This goes with the territory.
Despite our claims that our electoral arena is a great leveller, we have seen how those from the entertainment industry are attacked by all and sundry as lightweights. Do you recall how Ronald Reagan was dismissed as just a handsome face — if you stretch the imagination a little — by his opponents? He went on to become the architect of the end of the cold war. Closer home, both NTR and MGR battled odds to become chief ministers and even today, long after their deaths people are vying to carry on their legacies. But actors and actresses in the fray face personal barbs for their glamorous lives.
The main tool of attack strangely enough is not the one issue which is emotive and that is the one of personal wealth. It is no secret that the declared assets of many of our politicos are far below what they actually possess. Yet, it is not raised too often, perhaps because almost everyone has something to hide.
Let us face it, the days of the tempered debate, the erudite thrust and parry of politics are slowly vanishing. Of course, there still are those who can rise to the occasion but their words would be lost in the wind in the face of the vituperative onslaught that characterises political discourse today.
In fact, going by what I have seen so far, candidates prefer to attack each other rather than highlight their own track records. In the age of 24 by 7 television and snarky anchors, these are the sound bites that get prominence. An aspirant listing out painstakingly how many borewells or smokeless chulas he has installed in his constituency is likely to get far less media traction than if he were to spill the beans about some ugly trait or illicit relationship of his opponent. It is the lowest common denominator everyone is seeking to cater to.
It is trivia rather than substance which rules the roost today, much like popular entertainment. Epithets like ‘shehzada’ and ‘maut ka saudagar’ enter the popular consciousness far easier than reasoned arguments. And I think the trend of personalised electoral debates, indeed politics itself, has come to stay. Once sacrosanct dynasties have been hauled over the coals and will continue to face the flak as the days go by. It certainly spices up the election much in the manner of the popular chaat rather than the gourmet but acquired taste of caviar.
This means that there are no more holy cows when it comes to those in the fray. And in a way, it brings our leaders or those who aspire to be down to the level of the common man. It is perhaps the only time every five years that we can feel that our leaders are really no better than us, in fact, we can feel positively superior to them in many respects. More power to the lowest common denominator.