The first phase of the 2009 general elections begins today. The greatest democratic exercise in this country, however, has been preceded by one of the most undemocratic and politically churlish phases. The period leading to the current election has seen political maturity and discourse plummet to record lows, dampening the very spirit of democracy and politics. And the culprits range across the political spectrum.
A few days back, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh referred to independent candidates as "spoilers", urging voters in Mumbai to "not encourage them because they cannot win". This statement is not only condescending and pompous but is downright undemocratic. And coming from the Prime Minister of the country, who is eyeing a second term, it also sets a dangerous precedent. If the Constitution of the country permits individuals, who choose not to or are unable contest on party tickets, to stand as independents, then nobody has a right to question their candidature.
By calling independents spoilers and questioning their winnability, Singh has not just reduced his stature as a politician but has also inadvertently disclosed his party's dismissive attitude towards those who choose to contest in their own right and not be affiliated to any political party. Dr Singh, independents are not "spoilers". Perhaps people who decide to lead the country, staking claim to the top post without having the courage to face the electorate are "spoilers" for this democracy.
The prime minister's unfortunate comment, however, was just one of the many off-colour remarks passed in the pre-election phase.
Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi launched an unwarranted, childish attack against the Congress, calling it "budhia" (old woman) and later "gudia" (doll). While Modi's secular credentials are more than just dubious, he has done well for himself by playing up his development plank, which has worked for him at the hustings as well. Mr Modi, by indulging in an unnecessary game of mindless semantics, you are not only reducing your election speeches to at best page 10 entertainment, but are also depriving Indian politics of meaningful debate.
Modi's phrases were so juvenile that they didn't even warrant a reaction. But Priyanka Gandhi decided to humour him and responded with an equally inane statement. "Do I look old to you...Does Sonia Gandhi (Congress president and her mother), Rahul Gandhi or I look old to you," she asked. Better sense prevailed a day later (but not before enough damage had been done to pre-election discourse) when she termed Modi's ‘gudia' comment "ridiculous" and said the focus should be on development issues.
BJP prime ministerial candidate L K Advani has been constantly attacking the Prime Minister as "weak" and Singh has responded with equally acrimonious and un-intellectual barbs.
Unfortunately, the level of political repartee in India has become so poor that it is not just unintelligent and far from being witty but also not entertaining.
Varun Gandhi's now-infamous speech is another example of meaningless, undemocratic rant in the run up to elections. But even worse than his venomous words was RJD chief Lalu Yadav's response, which invited the Election Commission's ire. The heated exchange between Lalu's wife Rabri Devi and JD (U) chief Nitish Kumar was made of the same irrelevant stuff.
Election 2009, which boasts of political assertion by several regional parties, a close contest between various blocs and participation by urbane, intellectual independents, has seen personal mud slinging and a mindless escalation of words, which have done irreparable damage to public discourse. Instead of engaging in constructive and sensible debate and discussion, India's political class has reduced itself to the lowest possible standard.
I do not know who will win the 2009 Lok Sabha election, but democracy, political maturity and public discourse will definitely emerge as the main losers.