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Friends and opponents

I would say a man’s vote is no more significant than his favourite colour, his choice of music or his style of dress, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Dec 23, 2007 03:21 IST

Today the Gujarat verdict will be known and, hopefully, a curtain will descend on the unseemly rhetoric that has been the hallmark of this campaign. Regardless of who loses what will be hard to forget is the distasteful comments exchanged between Sonia Gandhi and Narendra Modi. To be honest, they were more than unnecessary and unbecoming. They were uncouth.

But what stunned me is that they were pronounced with measured deliberation, even a certain pride. Maut ka Saudagar, as much as Modi’s carefully crafted references to Sohrabuddin, justifying his cold-blooded murder, were not impetuous outbursts. They weren’t explosions of anger or slips of indiscretion.

They were meticulously planned, pointedly said and carefully built upon. They are, therefore, all the more unforgivable.

The sad part is we expect no better of our politicians. So when their language descends to the gutter, we may express disgust but we’re no longer surprised. We put up with it, in fact, we accept. Worse, the press plays up their comments, using one to extract in response another, but rarely, if ever, do we criticise, leave aside admonish. In fact, the attention we pay serves to encourage them. I wonder if we realise that they’re playing to our gallery and our response is tantamount to applause?

The paradox is that away from the public gaze, politicians behave very differently. I recall a conversation with Arun Shourie shortly after he first became an MP. “What’s Parliament like?” I asked, expecting an excoriating reply. No editor had done more in recent times to expose politicians. Shourie, I felt certain, would find the atmosphere in Parliament oppressive.

“You won’t believe this”, he began with a smile that covered his full face. His eyes were twinkling as if he knew he was about to surprise me. “It’s the chummiest place in the world. MPs are extremely warm and friendly.”

Whilst I stared in disbelief, Arun laughed loudly. “You have to come there and see for yourself!”

So why in their speeches and election rallies do MPs forget their friendliness, even their civility, and resort to low rhetoric and cheap insults? In other words, why do they behave so differently in public compared to their manner in private?

I suspect it’s because both them and, sadly, us look upon political opposition as enmity. As a society we do not distinguish between rivalry and warfare. Differences of opinion are exaggerated into divisions that forever separate one from another. And, secondly, we pay too much attention to politics. We attach more weight and meaning to a person’s political beliefs than they warrant. I would say a man’s vote is no more significant than his favourite colour, his choice of music or his style of dress. It’s just one of his many attributes.

But that’s a minority view. For many others, if not most, politics is the test that counts.

How different are the customs and practice of the English. In 1963, when Harold Wilson first became leader of the opposition, Harold Macmillan was the towering prime minister of the day. At his first prime minister’s question time, Harold the younger knew he had to make an instant impression. So he went for Super Mac, as the PM was called, with all the facts, rhetoric and braggadocio at his command. If the accounts of the time are to be believed, it was a pretty bruising encounter. Macmillan seemed to be reeling.

When it was over, a hush descended on the Commons. How would Macmillan react? When parliament rose for the day, the PM ostentatiously crossed the floor towards the Leader of the Opposition. Everyone froze and looked on in silence.

“You were in devastating form,” said the elder Harold, thumping his young opponent on the back. “Now you owe me a drink!” And together the PM and the Opposition leader repaired to the bar.

I’d love to see Sonia Gandhi invite LK Advani for tea. As she reaches out for the silver teapot and pours him a hot cuppa, Indian politics could transform forever.

Politicians may not be friends, but they don’t have to be enemies either.