Politics was never about courtesy, but what’s happening since 2014 is new: Here's what changed

Political culture is a by-product of leadership.

 |  4-minute read |   29-11-2018
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Politics was always a mud-slinging affair; elections are won not on how good you look, but on how bad you make the other guy appear.

It is based on a fundamental premise of what works easily and better — destroying is a cakewalk compared to the diligence required for construction.

US President Donald Trump is known for not maintaining too high a standard of public discourse. (Photo: AP/file)US President Donald Trump is known for not maintaining too high a standard of public discourse. (Photo: AP/file)

Donald Trump kept calling his Democrat rival “Crooked Hillary (Clinton)”, it hit the bull’s eye. Clinton chose not to join the pejorative exchange and paid for it. Former Prime Minister VP Singh would pull out a piece of paper and read out a complex alpha-numeric address and claim it was the bank account number in which “the kickbacks from the Bofors deal were deposited”. It was fabricated garbage. But the Congress party was reduced from a dizzying 414 seats to a dismal 197 within a space of five years. It was cataclysmic.

Bad news travels faster, especially if it is pregnant with salacious content or imbued with dark connotations. And if you have a hyperventilating media that usurps cheesy sound-bytes and plays it on loop, even better.

VP Singh would whip out a piece of paper and read out what he claimed was the account number in which the gains of Bofors deal were stowed. VP Singh would whip out a paper and read out what he claimed was the number of the bank account in which the ill-goten gains of the Bofors deal were stowed. (Photo: PTI/file)

But of late, things have become egregiously embarrassing, with the political contest becoming totally nonsensical. Anything works.

The only thing that remains to be seen is perhaps a fistfight in a TV studio, or a free-for-all wrestling match between debaters and their supporters.  It is getting so anarchic that violence seems a logical fallout of the incongruous goings-on.

It is not just a ludicrous sight on TV any more — it could actually get someone hurt.  A case in point is the insanity that was on display recently during an audience-participation show of a popular national Hindi channel.

The Bhartiya Janata Party’s ubiquitous chief spokesperson (he is practically all over the airwaves), Sambit Patra, was in a TV programme with direct audience participation. Patra’s hidden agenda seems to be to become a social celebrity by making outlandish, outrageous and the obtuse statements. Facts, data, truth are easily dumped by the wayside as a farce takes over. He revels in it, almost palpably thrilled with himself, even if the average bystander stands numbed by the atrociousness of his behavior. 

In this particular episode, Patra was hell-bent on smashing through new lows; he referred to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s distinguished first Prime Minister and a true-blue statesman, as a ‘Thug of Hindoostan’ ( inspired by a mega-budget Bollywood release).  Patra attached the same sobriquet to two martyred former prime ministers, Mrs Indira Gandhi and Mr Rajiv Gandhi, as well, suffixing them with “dakait (dacoit)”. Naturally, Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Mr Rahul Gandhi were abused with vehemence and vitriol too.

BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra called Nehru the 'Thug of Hindoostan'. BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra called Nehru the 'Thug of Hindoostan'. (Photo: Nehru Portal)

The Congress counterpart, Rajiv Tyagi — visibly stunned by the coarse outburst — retaliated by using the popular sneer of ‘Chowkidaar Chor Hai’ ( the gatekeeper is a thief), but by then, the invited audience from both sides had swarmed determinedly onto the make-shift stage to back their respective representatives.

The TV moderator looked helplessly on as the show faced a messy collapse amidst the unbridled hooliganism. Patra, from what I could make of him in the TV footage, looked mighty pleased with himself. Groups hectored each other, and if they had got carried away, some chairs — and bones — would have certainly been broken that evening.

It is true that from time immemorial, there have been acrimonious exchanges between bitter political rivals, which have often degenerated into cheap slander, baseless allegations and defamatory abuse.

But what we are witnessing in India, especially since May 2014 when Narendra Modi became Prime Minister, is visceral viciousness, where malevolent maligning of opponents is kosher. Mostly, they are extremely personal in nature, and the attacks (amplified by right-wing social media trolls that operate like storm troopers) are savage. Thus, TV shows are like a bloodfest, a gladiatorial battle without any rule, where there will be just one last man standing.

The truth is that political culture is a by-product of leadership. If our public discourse appears contaminated or our conversations have become coarse, it is largely because they mirror the expectations of those at the top. 

The hatred is being amplified by right-wing social media trolls that operate like storm troopersThe hatred is being amplified by social media trolls, that operate like storm troopers. (Photo: Reuters/file)

Ironically, the world’s largest democracies, the USA and India, are saddled with the same predicament — hyper-nationalism, xenophobic bigotry, Islamophobia, tribalism, contempt for free press, proliferation of fake news and often blood-curling revanchism (the lynchings in India are proof of that). We are at war within ourselves, a fractured society that is being further sub-divided. 

It is hardly astonishing therefore that in this atmosphere of mutual recriminations, where the principal parties live in echo chambers, democratic dialogue is fast dissipating. There is no common ground, and each views the other with deep suspicion. Polarisation helps authoritarian leaders to further entrench themselves in the saddle, as even a miniscule shift towards the hardline works as an intensifier. It has an exponential effect over the long-term.

But societies do get a chance at redemption, to reduce the verbiage, the anger, the hate.

If ruling political leadership determines a nation’s character, then every election is an opportunity for reclamation. For a fightback to good, old-fashioned values, and issues-based contests. Not one argued on the color of our skin or the gods we pray to or the fear of the other. 

India will test itself in 2019.  And America a year later. The world will be watching.

Also read: What Congress needs to learn from BJP in the social media game


Sanjay Jha Sanjay Jha @jhasanjay

National Spokesperson of the Indian National Congress party. Co-author, The Superstar Syndrome.

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