It’s time to restore civility in public discourse | columns | Hindustan Times
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It’s time to restore civility in public discourse

The quality of political discourse in India has never been great and it has degenerated into downright billingsgate in recent years. No party, and no leaders, can claim to have taken the moral high ground when it comes to this.

columns Updated: Dec 09, 2017 18:11 IST
Chanakya
Chanakya
Hindustan Times
Political Debate,Mani Shankar Aiyar,Narendra Modi
Reacting to what he saw as politicisation of the legacy of B R Ambedkar by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Congress’ Mani Shankar Aiyar called the latter “Neech” or low-class this week

Last week marked a predictable low point in Indian politics. It also marked a surprising high point.

First, the low. Reacting to what he saw as politicisation of the legacy of B R Ambedkar by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Congress’ Mani Shankar Aiyar called the latter “neech” or low-class. The backlash was immediate, even if some of it came from an unexpected source, but more on that anon.

Aiyar is a long-suffering victim of the foot-in-the-mouth disease, but he isn’t the only one. The quality of political discourse in India has never been great and it has degenerated into downright billingsgate in recent years. No party, and no leaders, can claim to have taken the moral high ground when it comes to this.

A quick, but incomplete sampling would include: Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s reference to Modi as a “coward and psychopath”; BJP leader Giriraj Singh’s question on whether, if Rajiv Gandhi had married a Nigerian, the Congress would have accepted her as its leader; Congress leader Sanjay Nirupam’s retort to BJP leader (and now union minister) Smriti Irani that she had come a long way from dancing on TV (the Hindi original is far more insulting) to making poll predictions; and CPI (M) representative Anil Basu drawing an analogy between prostitutes getting money from clients and TMC leader and now West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee allegedly receiving donations from the US.

There’s more, a lot more. There’s worse, a lot worse. But you get the picture.

Several factors can explain why this is happening.

The stakes are probably far higher today than they ever were in the past, and many politicians are in perennial campaign mode, moving from campaigning for parliamentary elections to seeking votes for state elections to, in some cases, hitting the road for local administrative body elections.

These elections, all of them, are also extensively covered in the 24x7 media cycle, with many seeing the outcomes of even local body elections as a referendum on the policies and the popularity of the prime minister. Such coverage also means that every foolish utterance, every rabid rant is picked up and played on loop. Sometimes, it would appear as if politicians are saying something solely for effect, or exclusively to provoke, but most media outlets do not apply even the most basic filters. Many politicians see the coverage as a licence to say such things and also as an easy way to stay in the limelight. Indeed, there are names all of us can name, from across the political spectrum who have become names only on the strength of such utterances.

In the world of alternate facts, such comments are also often hyperbolic, perpetuating convenient narratives. For instance, last week, BJP spokesperson GVL Narasimha Rao called Rahul Gandhi a “Babar bhakt” and “kin of Khilji” in a tweet. “Nehru dynasty sided with both Islamic invaders,” he added.

Mr and Ms Bharat are to blame too, to some extent. They have always preferred the loud slapstick humour of a David Dhawan over the gentle situational comedies of a Hrishikesh Mukherjee. To be fair to politicians, it also isn’t possible to be nuanced when one is addressing a few tens of thousands of people — or in 140 or 280 characters.

Finally, and most importantly, perhaps because the stakes are high, many politicians of today seem to have developed a personal antipathy (often a violent personal antipathy) towards their rivals. That may also be because ideological positions are blurring, and, strange as it may seem, converging. For instance, apart from the fact that the current National Democratic Alliance government hasn’t got embroiled in corruption controversies, there’s little to separate its larger policies, specially economic ones, from those of its predecessor, the United Progressive Alliance. Given this, a lot of politics revolves around personalities, not ideologies. As it turns out it also means a lot of politics is beginning to revolve around name-calling.

Still, just because something can be explained doesn’t mean it is acceptable.

Chanakya isn’t anybody’s fan. Indeed, if anything can describe this writer, it would be equal opportunity offender. But it is hard to ignore the surprising high point of the past week — the behaviour of Rahul Gandhi.

First, he apologised for a mistake in his tweet, about the rise of commodity prices (they had increased but not by as much as he originally claimed) even as he took a gentle dig at the Prime Minister (“...unlike Narendrabhai, I am human. We do make the odd mistake and that’s what makes life interesting...”). Then, he rapped Aiyar on the knuckles, forcing him to apologise and, later, suspending him from the primary membership of the party. Both come several weeks after he said that while he would criticise Modi, he wouldn’t disrespect him because he is the prime minister of the country.

For the record, other leaders and other parties have also, on occasion, pulled up one of their own for such utterances. For instance, Giriraj Singh apologised for his remarks above, reportedly at the insistence of party chief Amit Shah; and in 2011, Basu was expelled from the party for his remarks on Banerjee.

It would be good to see some consistency on this front, though, and from all sides.

Chanakya is pragmatic and doesn’t expect to see the kind of repartee immortalised by Lady Astor and Winston Churchill, but some good, old-fashioned civility would be welcome. It’s high time to restore decency to debate.

letters@hindustantimes.com

First Published: Dec 09, 2017 18:10 IST