No questions, please
As recent events show, in India today there is very little room for genuine debate on public issues. This is not good news for any democracy.columns Updated: Jun 15, 2012 00:12 IST
Move over George Bush, Baba Ramdev is here. In the course of a recent interview, I asked India's tele-friendly yoga guru-turned-black money avenger, the source of his great wealth. "Why are you asking me these questions? Are you with us in the fight against corruption or with our enemies?" was the Baba's riposte. Ah! Asking mildly uncomfortable questions to an anti-corruption 'crusader' meant that you had somehow switched to the 'other side'. Us and Them. How convenient. If the former US president had his war on terror divide, we now have one in the fight against corruption.
Baba's remarks are of a piece with the manner in which the anti-corruption campaign is playing out. Last year, the redoubtable activist Aruna Roy was virtually chased away from the Ramlila Maidan by Anna Hazare's army of cheerleaders and dubbed a 'traitor'. Her 'crime'? She had sought a wider public debate on the Lokpal Bill as formulated by Team Anna. But then, when you are so utterly convinced about your own cause and your infallibility, where is the space for any debate or dissent?
Another anti-corruption 'hero', the retired Indian Army chief, General VK Singh, has also tended to operate in a neatly divided binary world of 'acolytes' and 'enemies'. Over the last few months, the General's supporters have launched a vicious e-mail campaign against anyone who dare question the approach or the motives of a 'man of honour'. 'Honour' it seems is the exclusive preserve of the men in uniform; civilians who question the chief's judgement are either biased or worse, 'sold out'.
The intolerance that appears to drive the anti-corruption 'revolutionary' mindset is equally applicable to those in the government who oppose them. Last week, when Team Anna members raised the pitch on coal allocations, senior ministers responded by dubbing them 'anti-national', even raising the spectre of the ubiquitous 'foreign hand'. Yes, the language used by some of the respected members of our anti-corruption brigade has been coarse and ill-judged, but is that reason enough to dub them anti-national? Or are we seeking to rewind to the dark days of the Emergency when an insecure Indira Gandhi saw 'destabilisation' of the country in every criticism of the government?
Indeed, a creeping intolerance now threatens to destroy the very basis of democratic freedoms in the country. Don't like a cartoon? Ban the book. Don't like the questions asked in a television chat show? Walk out of it, and dub the audience 'Maoists'. Don't want a debate in Parliament? Block the House by forcing repeated adjournments. Don't like questions raised on sensitive issues like the Gujarat 2002 riots? Start a character assassination campaign on social media, or worse, file a sedition case. Narendra Modi, the BJP's poster boy, in fact, is a good example of the polarisation of public opinion. Praise the Gujarat chief minister's administrative acumen, and you run the risk of being accused of a 'sell-out'. Question the Modi government on its attitude towards minorities and be damned as a 'pseudo-secular' 'anti-national' humbug.
We now operate in a black and white moral universe, where there is little space for the shades of grey that allow for a genuine engagement on public issues. Perhaps, the media is equally culpable. We are in an age where 140 characters on Twitter are seen to offer an easy substitute for even a 1,000-word article. Why bother to stretch the mind with a complex argument when a few words of suitable moral outrage will do? Television too, with its constant demand for instant gratification pushes a 'pop' analysis debating culture that forces one to take sides. Questions are often posed in a manner that encourage extreme opinion (yes, mea culpa too!). The moderate voice who offers a more nuanced argument is seen as 'boring' television, while shrill rhetoric offers high 'entertainment value'.
This 'twitterisation' of news now threatens to overwhelm us, within and outside the media. Governments and civil society groups have a proclivity to play to the gallery, offering few solutions but ever-ready to enter into slanging matches. The result is more heat than light, a greater emphasis on noise than knowledge.
But to single out the media for spreading the culture of intolerance would be unfair. In a strongly worded recent article in Hard News, the PM's former media adviser Harish Khare writes: "To be sure, this culture is perhaps a logical outcome of the politics of accusation which has thrived in India for two decades now. This culture of accusation thrives on a section of the political class - and now increasingly vocal sections of civil society - hurling charges and blame at its designated rivals. We feel free to take liberties with a public figure's character, reputation, record and privacy. Honest debate is discouraged and no issue is ever settled. Instead, a bogus morality play is put on, and in the process otherwise neutral institutions like the higher judiciary, the CAG, the CVC, the CBI, and now, even an apolitical army get sucked into the game".
Sure, the media offers a ready platform for this 'game' to be played out, but it isn't as if a television studio is a magnet that should make us lose our finer senses. Why don't those in leadership positions recognise their obligation to enriching the public discourse rather than making it more debased? The answer is not long periods of silence as preferred by our PM who appears unwilling to even attempt to converse with the nation. But neither is the solution a hyper-ventilating 'shoot-and-scoot' culture that is preferred by some of our so-called moral guardians. Let's be argumentative, not accusatory Indians, open-minded and not intolerant.
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18 Network. The views expressed by the author are personal.