Elections are messy affairs. The poll rhetoric off late has ranged from appeasement to open threats, and it has been unfortunate (but expected) that the Prime Minister has led the charge on this count. A while back, the PM and his colleagues attempted to shame the state of Kerala by comparing them to Somalia; brought up shamshan ghats and kabristans in Uttar Pradesh; predicted jubilations and fireworks in Pakistan if the BJP lost in Bihar; and auctioned central assistance to Bihar. More recently, political opponents have been equated to ‘termites’ in Himachal Pradesh, and in Gujarat, oh well, the language has been such that it has shamed even some of those who were famously ‘neutral’ to the rise of the Narendra Modi brand of politics in 2013-14.
The Gujarat campaign has been an absolute disaster, and reflects the decay of the moral consensus that demanded a degree of decency in public life. The barbs made at former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the aspersions cast on political opponents in general, the predictable and tiresome invocations of Pakistan, and reinvigorating the mandir-masjid argument – all of this also marks a return of Narendra Modi to an earlier avatar of his when there was no hiding behind masks of ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’. Indeed, if left to the BJP, it would seem that amongst the most pressing questions in Gujarat today is whether Rahul Gandhi is more like Alauddin Khilji or Aurangzeb.
Where does this leave us, the citizens of India? Is this kind of invective meant to convey that only the Bharatiya Janata Party has the right to rule in this country? Or is it meant to instil the fear that if they vote in an opposition party to power in their states, there would be zero cooperation from the Government of India?
We were once a country where decency in public discourse was appreciated, and there was a sense of public morality, even if it conflicted with the personal beliefs one held. No longer is that the case.
This has serious implications for governance in India. Cooperative federalism cannot be reduced to a hollow slogan – it needs to be the reality. When the Prime Minister sours the pitch in this manner, it is hard to see political parties cooperating meaningfully. It is one thing for states to go to elections, and witness bitter contests. It is an entirely different matter, when the Prime Minister of the country turns up and converts state elections into a race of competitive populism, or worse, lowers the discourse further by indulging in name-calling and polarisation.
The larger question remains – why has it become okay to indulge in this kind of vitriolic rhetoric? Those arguing that the insecurity that Modi demonstrates was a hallmark of the 1970s politics in India are doing us a disservice. The world as we know it was not the same in the 1970s. India was not an “emerging superpower”, and we were far from claiming a stake at the high tables of global leadership. For an inward-focused economy, sovereignty was a pre-occupation, and politicians excelled in capitalising on the prevailing global tug-of-war between superpowers of the Cold War era. Unfortunately for us, it seems to have been a successful political strategy, and has made a lasting impression on those who formed the political opposition back then.
India in the 21st century ought to have moved beyond these impulses. A nation where over 50% of the population is below the age of 35 should not be emulating the politics from over forty years back. This then, should be seen as one of the biggest failures of the current dispensation. Instead of allowing its citizens to genuinely aspire for greater heights, it has stoked fires that pull people down to the lowest common denominator of public discourse.
It is evident that global perceptions regarding India are being affected too. The Indian state, through the Constitution of India, sought to articulate a vision for the country that was not shackled by the conservative moorings of its people at that time. As a result, much progress has been made, even as divisions in society – on both social and economic issues – have sharpened. The backlash was inevitable, but it is up to the state to shepherd that transition. India was beginning to be known for the remarkable strides we made in science and technology, the quality of our human resources, our vibrant entertainment industry, the bustling innovations in rural areas, ambitious social welfare programmes, etc. Today, those attributes appear to be fading away, under attack from what looks like a state that is turning its backs on scientific temper and syncretic culture. We are increasingly being perceived as a country where the state sanctions and abets communal propaganda, and where the pressures of domestic politics have tempted the government to encroach on the integrity of institutions that were critical to the country’s reputation.
In spite all its blemishes, India’s democracy is a wonderful thing. We are far from turning into an authoritarian regime where voices of dissent can be suppressed. And this means that the coarsening of public discourse will not be hidden from the outside world. Our leaders need to think extremely carefully about the kind of brand they are leaving for our future generations. A moral decay has set in, and needs to be reversed. The onus lies at the top.