The good thing about contemporary politics, it seems, is that there are no holy cows anymore. If Rahul Gandhi can be called a “namuna (specimen)” whose speeches are only good for relieving stress, the BJP can certainly be described as a bunch of “panic-stricken rats” scrambling for cover. If Giriraj Singh of the BJP can ask for Narendra Modi’s critics to be sent to Pakistan, then Lalu Prasad Yadav can certainly ask for Modi to be sent to Pakistan instead, and Farooq Abdullah can ask Modi voters to jump into the sea.
The bad thing about all this, of course, is that this is all we get. At a time when political leaders could do with serious debates on substantial policy issues, the terms have already been set along the lines of personal attacks, name-calling, and communal and sexist invective that’s magnified by the chatter of social networking and a 24X7 news media hungry for a “good byte”.
A new low
Several political commentators believe political discourse has hit a new low. In the 1960s, the worst that could be done was to resort to distributing “anonymous pamphlets” laced with barbs and insinuations. “No one knew who wrote those; and even the content was quite palatable,” says senior columnist Inder Malhotra, recalling the incident where supporters of former President VV Giri distributed pamphlets against rival Sanjeeva Reddy in the presidential elections of 1969. The pamphlets alleged that Reddy was corrupt and immoral, and that only a “man of character” such as Giri was befitting of the post.
Today, aside from the distribution of anonymous pamphlets, as was done in Amethi (against Rahul Gandhi) this past week, public figures can (almost) get away with more: calling rivals napunsak (impotent) and “dogs”; describing visiting Dalit homes as “honeymooning and picnicking”; and making a direct reference to the perceived threat to women’s honour from men belonging to the minority community. The use of invective, and the subsequent degradation of political discourse, however, isn’t all that new — angry pamphlets aside, in 1966, socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia had infamously described Indira Gandhi as a “goongi gudiya” (dumb doll) in Parliament; others attacked her status as a widow, even as Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger privately called her an “old witch”, according to Wikileaks. In the heated debates that ensued after the debacle of the 1962 war against China, Lohia charged the government with spending “Rs 25,000 a day” on Jawahar Lal Nehru. Senior columnist Inder Malhotra mentions in an Indian Express column that Lohia had said even the prime minister’s “dog needed security”!
Political commentators and sociologists insist that none of this is comparable to what is happening now. Today, “invective is not used, but abused,” says Malhotra. Personal lives of opponents are routinely targeted: TV channels have spent precious airtime over Modi’s estranged wife, and this past week, private photographs of a journalist in a consensual relationship with Congress leader Digvijay Singh went viral, after the former’s phone was allegedly hacked.
That vituperative commentary has swept away any substantial debate over important issues is also a function of time, argues sociologist Shiv Visvanathan. “This is one of the most prolonged elections in our history, spread over nine phases. Politicians are running out of stamina, and are bankrupt of ideas,” he says. Narendra Modi, for instance, has addressed hundreds of rallies in the past one year, and could certainly do with a break. “Modi did start by discussing issues such as federalism, but couldn’t sustain it,” says Visvanathan. Others such as Badri Narayan Tiwari, social scientist at Allahabad’s GB Pant’s Social Science Institute feels Rahul Gandhi too tried to initiate a debate on larger issues but abandoned it to respond to attacks on his personality.
In an election campaign driven largely by charisma and the cult of personality, such potent insults are common — especially in the final phase, when leaders are desperate to create a space for themselves, and survive under the glare of perpetual news coverage, explains Visvanathan. The nature of the beast has the media being selective about the dramas they choose. Senior columnist BG Verghese says the press plays up abusive comments by using bold headlines. TV channels reeling under TRP pressure then bombard the audience with repeated coverage of those remarks. PN Vasanti, director of Centre for Media Studies, says that to a great extent, even the agenda of the discourse is decided keeping in mind the medium, particularly television news channels that devote 60 per cent of their airtime to election coverage.
“The conspiracy is between the political parties, the media and the spectator who consumes the news,” says Visvanathan. vengeful discourse
It would seem like open season especially when it comes to vengeful comments. Amit Shah’s announcement at a rally that the upcoming polls were an opportunity to “take revenge” for the Muzaffarnagar riots, his hate speech in Bijnor, and Giriraj Singh’s statement about sending people off to Pakistan have pulled election rhetoric a few notches lower, and made the debate divisive. “What the BJP’s political leaders are doing is seeking the separation of voters from critical and self-reflective thought, and connecting them only to rhetorical, and hence vacuous, venomous speech,” writes Gopal Guru, Professor of Political Theory at JNU, in an article on morality, reason and rhetoric in contemporary politics in the Economic and Political Weekly.
The communal turn to the discourse also signals a serious disregard for women’s freedom and autonomy. “The likes of Amit Shah are only speaking the language of the khaps; denying women the choice and freedom to choose in the name of protection from Muslim men, and attacking inter-caste marriages as the PMK-BJP alliance is doing in Tamil Nadu,” says Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All Indian Progressive Women’s Association. Krishnan says that though women politicians such as Indira Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee have been subject to sexist remarks in the past — Banerjee was accused by the CPM of hating red because she was unmarried and couldn’t wear sindoor — recent remarks by politicians like Shah seek to deny women autonomy in who they choose to love and marry, ironically, in the post-December 16 era. “It’s almost as if these leaders weren’t listening when men and women in Delhi were raising slogans about khap se azadi (freedom from the khaps).”
It can get hard to hear, especially in times of high decibel election campaigning where words speak louder than actions. Or, as Guru states, where the lack of action can be made up by deploying repeated, rhetorical assertions confirming otherwise. Clearly, in an era of being constantly connected, politicians will have to find new ways to stay relevant without falling from grace.