Millennium Post

The politics of indignation

Indian politics adopts a queer principle. There is a Laxman Rekha in political discourse. Nobody is expected to cross the same. An example is attack on the Nehru-Gandhi family. One is expected not to criticise the members of family in course of delivering political messages. When Narendra Modi breached the convention, media and the commentators choseto ventilate their adverseviews against such unholybreach of the Laxman Rekha.

Narendra Modi, for many, has emerged as a welcome relief from the claustrophobic stereotype thought. Political analysts should welcome Modi for breaking us free from the monotony of a meaningless ritualistic obeisance to a particular family. Indian politics has accepted that the family members have a right to rule without the subjects having any right to question. They have a right to travel abroad for celebrating birthdays and when on holiday receive the SPG protection at taxpayers’ money but the hapless taxpayer has no right to know where do they travel. The ruling party President goes abroad reportedly for treatment but the taxpayer has no business to know where did the leader go, what is the ailment. What is more Modi crossed the Laxman Rekha since he had the audacity to mention that if the party President was unwell the vice-president should take over.

This was defamatory Congress spokesman claimed on TV. Offensive perhaps it was, at least for the parasites living off the benevolence of the family. But how can the same be viewed as defamatory is beyond any rational thought. True, Narendra Modi has been crossing with impunity the Rubicon of civility accepted in the political discourse of the country so far. He has even broken free from what the former BJP Prime Minister and his principal secretary did in the past. Apparently during the tenure of Vajpayee, a certain touch-me-not member of a political family was detained in a US airport with cash beyond the legal limit of the USA. Not only that the right strings were pulled to save the person from embarrassment but also the report could manage to stay out of the public domain. Narendra Modi, judged by his speeches, seems to have no such civility in him. Should we ask Modi to follow the rules hitherto accepted as sacrosanct?

According to Richard King, author of On Offence, The Politics of Indignation, civility as preached is the civility of the Middle Ages. For common men then it was a sin to speak against the nobility. ‘To sin against nobility is to sin against God since it was He who set nobles above us.’ On a practical note, it made sense for the common men to avoid criticising the nobility. They had enormous power to hit back on the recalcitrant commoner. Thus was set the rule of civility. Introspection gives the impression that the Indian politicians’ (and analysts, commentators et al) steadfast refusal to cross the Rubicon could be due to the concern of reprisal. Since India follows a semi-feudalistic approach towards democracy, there are good reasons to stay away from personal attacks by most leaders. The point one cannot miss is that those who will criticise today, say the family heirloom style of politics, will themselves indulge in the same style when in authority. The family-first policy of Congress is seen in regional parties like Samajwadi Party of Mulayam Yadav, RJD of Lalu Yadav, JMM of ShibuSoren, National Conference of Abdullahs, NCP of Sharad Power, Shiv Sena of Thackeray etc. Within Congress also there are many who are in positions of authority due to family links; Shiela Dikshit, Sachin Pilot, Jyotiraditya Scindia et al. People living in glass houses do not throw stones at each other. So the Rubicon has come to stay here.
But the principle of free speech is meaningless unless it includes the freedom to offend. In fact, the claim to find something hurtful or offensive should be the beginning of the debate not the end of it. If people have noticed Arvind Kejriwal it was because of his courage to expose Robert Vadera, the son-in-law of the Congress family. In sum, the accepted modern Indian fetish for sensitivity is corrosive of genuine civility. If the Kejriwals and the Modis readily sway the young India, the reason could be traced to the eternal urge of the young to challenge, question and criticise the tame acceptance of laid down rules.

In an advanced democracy the rules are what the young India aspires to see here. When a man of humble origin, born in a one-room log cabin, emerged as a political figure of the turbulent 19th century USA, he was subjected to several personal innuendos. His rival Stephen A Douglas, a democrat and member of the US Senate, repeatedly humiliated Lincoln for his humble background. Once he called Lincoln, ‘a grocery-keeper’ who sold cigars and whisky and was ‘a good bartender’.

Lincoln admitted that he sold whisky, ‘I remember that in those days Douglas was one of my best customers. Many a time have I stood on one side of the counter and sold whisky to Douglas on the other side. But the difference between us now is this: I have left my side of the counter, but Douglas still sticks to his as tenaciously as ever.’

On personal attack, there was never a taboo then and even now. India in contrast prefers hypocrisy to accepting the practice of the Anglosphere – UK, USA, Australia – from where we picked up many issues in our constitution and electoral practices. Now that in India a tea-boy has emerged as arguably the most popular choice as leader and that there are many sly remarks hurled to denigrate him, there is no reason why some will enjoy the insults of him from the safety of their ivory towers. Equality is the first principle of democracy.

The author is a communication consultant
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