Two separate remarks, one by the prime minister and the other by the minister of state for external affairs, seem to have raised the pitch in a polarised environment.
In a nation of perpetual outrage, the words — ‘five-star activist’ by one and ‘presstitute’ by the other — have erupted in controversy. And the fact that they stem from the top political leadership is cause for concern.
Away from the hurly-burly of the campaign trail where theatrical references to 56-inch chests would go down well with the audience, leadership demands circumspection and a judicious use of words.
Yet, coming within a short span of each other, the words of Narendra Modi and VK Singh have managed to assert a with us/against us narrative that leaves no room for even the hint of dissent — and this cuts both ways as the liberals and loyalists draw lines.
This has worrying ramifications in a raucous democracy where multiple voices and opinions must be heard.
Modi’s cryptic reference cautioning the judiciary against ‘five-star activists’ made at a conference of chief justices and chief ministers has led some commentators to conclude a case of legislative overreach; others believe that it is a call to the judiciary to deliver judgments without fear or favour to prevailing public sentiment.
Given that the BJP is a beneficiary of judicial activism, in at least the 2G and coal scams that occurred during the UPA’s watch, Modi’s advice to the judiciary is perhaps gratuitous.
But it is gratuitous also because the judiciary has gone about its job regardless of whether it is being hailed for striking down Section 66A or pilloried for refusing to decriminalise Section 377. To imply that judges might be ‘fearful’ of public perception is, therefore, inaccurate.
In his 39-page order that ruled in favour of Greenpeace India’s Priya Pillai, Justice Rajiv Shakder pointed out that dissent is the right of every citizen.
The fact that the ministry of home affairs has nevertheless frozen Greenpeace India’s bank accounts can be seen as a challenge to the judiciary. Should judges be fearful of public perception or an increasingly assertive executive?
In contrast, Singh’s use of the word ‘presstitutes’ has no ambiguity and is so reprehensible that even his party has distanced itself from it.
By choosing to use it to describe a critical media, Singh has managed to mitigate the excellent work of his ministry in evacuating citizens from Yemen.
It leaves him open to being branded as an immature hothead, unsuited to diplomacy.
Perhaps Singh was smarting from the insinuation that attending a Pakistan Day function in New Delhi to which separatist leaders from Kashmir had also been invited was ‘anti-national’.
The questioning of the former army chief’s patriotism by the TimesNow channel was certainly out of line. But with ‘presstitutes’ the general has scored a self-goal.
Choosing words that are deliberately provocative has been self-defeating for another reason: In the din of outrage, genuine questions have been lost and an opportunity for debate and introspection is now mired in political opportunism and aggrieved finger-wagging.
For instance, Modi’s address to the judiciary should have led to questions about its role.
Given its increasing powers, why should the judiciary not be open to more public scrutiny? Is every instance of public interest litigation borne out of an innocent conviction of the larger social good? How do we reduce pendency?
These are valid questions and must be asked in a vibrant democracy. Equally germane are questions about the media’s rapidly falling standards. Paid media, the trivialisation of news, a cosy proximity with sources, the failure to self-regulate, media trials, and the lack of accountability are genuine concerns that must be debated if any semblance of public credibility is to be restored.
But to start a debate you need a measure of sobriety, not name-calling. Mature leadership demands the encouragement of conversation, not a chilling effect on speech by using words and language best left to anonymous trolls on social media.
Twitter:@namitabhandare The views expressed by the author are personal