Lt General BHOPINDER SINGH | 2 NOVEMBER, 2020
The Vileness of Political Discourse Today
Decreasing civility amongst political rivals
Politics was always intense and combative, yet political rivals retained a basic modicum of mutual respect in their interpersonal relations, enabling a common ground and recognition of each other, as equal citizens and patriots.
In participative democracies, the constitutional underpinnings insist on allowing that space for ‘differences with dignity’, as the necessities of democracy-in-practice.
Sadly, not anymore, as that spirit of equality, accommodation and tolerance in the political lingua franca, is steadily diminishing. Today, the shrillness, vileness and bitterness in political language that besets democracies is barely different from that of the more formally authoritarian regimes.
As India too totters from one serious challenge to the other, recurring elections in states offer a ringside view and insight into the phraseology, grammar and syntax of abject uncivility that now defines our political conversations.
Each election records a new low in the most personalised accusations, smallness-of-spirit and falsifications, that defines campaigning. No individual, party or even constitutional post held by any stakeholder is considered too sacred to abjure from such degradations and degenerations.
Once upon a time, the greatness of a politician was measured by their ability to encourage, accommodate and address contrarian views, and not in their ability to suppress or ridicule them. Perhaps it is a generational change, as the recent passing away of many such giants, would confirm that.
Last week India lost its sentinel of constitutional sobriety in former President, KR Narayanan, and many who had the honour to serve under him (author included), wrote moving eulogies. But what caught the eye, was one from D Raja, a committed Communist party member who said, ‘No Indian President faced as many challenges in defending the Constitution as he did and his role in upholding it, constitutes an enduring legacy worthy of replication’.
It is important to remember that Statesman KR Narayanan’s political stint had included wresting away the Communist bastion of Ottapalam, and winning that seat thrice for the Congress party, consecutively.
A month earlier, one of the founding members and amongst the most dignified faces of BJP, Jaswant Singh, had moved onto his Valhalla – the warrior-scholar was a formidable political opponent who led from the front, but he was also given to a certain personal disposition and tenor of pedigree that ensured measure, restraint and dignity in opposing his political rivals.
Jaswant Singh who served under no other party flag was generously recognised by his erstwhile political rival, Sonia Gandhi, who said movingly, ‘he was driven by a deep patriotism, love for his country and love and care for the people he served, and for the principles he believed in. I mourn the loss of a noble human being and a most dedicated and distinguished public servant’.
These words were not just political correctness or political one-upmanship as unfortunately, neither KR Narayanan nor Jaswant Singh, are political passions anymore – these words simply reflect a more honourable ode, bereft of political urgencies.
A similar regression of political vocabulary defines the land of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt etc., where the Presidential elections have unleashed a barrage of mean spirited, often false and boorish rants.
Yet, when the illustrious Senator-Veteran John McCain had passed away, a reassuring ‘closing of ranks’ across the bipartisan divide ensued with his former political rival, Barack Obama tellingly noting, ‘We never doubted the other man’s sincerity or the other man’s patriotism, or that when all was said and done, we were on the same team. So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse, can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult, in phony controversies and manufactured outrage. It’s a politics that pretends to be brave and tough, but in fact is born of fear’.
Words such as these for a political rival seem almost impossible in today’s bitterly polarised and rancorous times.
A more recent Indian politician who mirrored such graciousness and empathy was the former Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. It is ironic that in an era where Jawaharlal Nehru has been villainised and demonised for purported acts of omission and commission, it was Atal Bihari Vajpayee who lauded Nehru’s contribution towards national unity and integrity as a ‘apostle’. He said, “in spite of a difference of opinion we have nothing but respect for his great ideals, his integrity, his love for the country and his indomitable courage”– an unthinkable construct of language today!
But such was Vajpayee’s famed magnanimity and unfailing courtesies that his successor and political rival Manmohan Singh noted about Vajpayee himself, “His ability and personality were such that people from all walks of life, irrespective of their political leanings, loved and respected Shri Vajpayee ji”.
Not only are the likes of Manmohan Singh cut from the same cloth of inherent decency, but both are given to a civilisational wisdom that behooves, men of letters. Apparently, amidst a rather fierce political debate in the parliament, Atal Bihari Vajpayee went to Manmohan Singh and told him very large-heartedly, “Do not take these remarks seriously, the task of the opposition is to bring the government of the day to task”.
Even Vajpayee, who personified and exemplified the finest tenets of democratic traditions may find himself out of place in the dark, murky and intolerant politics of the day. The philosopher-poet who had famously posited the concept of ‘Rajdharma’ and wrote stirring poetry like ‘Kadam milakar chalna hoga’ (a leader will have to take everyone together), is no longer reflective of the sweeping political winds of the day.
It should concern us that the latest Democracy Index records the further deterioration of our ‘flawed democracy’ status with the steepest drop of 10 places to a global ranking of 51st position, attributed essentially to ‘democratic regression’.
It is hardly surprising that this regression is accompanied with the drama, tumult and unsavoury accusations that shame the land of civilisational civility.
Prevailing political language also shapes our ‘new normal’ in thinking, legitimises the previous taboos and creates the new social realities. Therefore, political language is the most visible, impactful and persuasive agent of change in politics – herein, the themes of respectability, empathy and humanity are certainly on the retreat, and the resultant impact on the polity, discourse and narrative of the nation, is obvious.
Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) os former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry.
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