Is it possible to have a political discourse where political disagreement does not translate into personal hatred?
When Congress leader Raj Babbar drew a comparison between fuel prices and the age of Narendra Modi’s mother, one assumed that political discourse in India could not get any worse. Former Union minister Vilasrao Muttemwar helped it plumb to even lower depths when he asked the Prime Minister the name of his father.
“Behenji” Mayawati entered unchartered waters when she questioned the Prime Minister’s ability to protect women when he himself was “a wife deserter”. At the receiving end of an unstoppable stream of personal attacks ever since he became the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi has maintained commendable restraint. But he has also been guilty of vitiating the discourse in the past.
The “fifty crore girlfriend” label that was attached to the now deceased Sunanda Pushkar was in poor taste. This brings us to a fundamental question — Can politics and decorum never mix?
Two of India’s founding fathers, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhai Patel never saw eye to eye. The ideological differences between the two have been analysed threadbare and exhaustively documented. But they never let their conflicting views stand in the way of showing each other respect in public. In October 1948, Patel oversaw Operation Polo, a military operation to annex the kingdom of Hyderabad.
In a move that undermined his deputy, Nehru appointed the Sunderlal Committee to investigate the operation and the communal riots that followed. The committee’s motives were openly questioned by Patel. But even such a major disagreement did not stop Patel from praising Nehru as “the upholder of our faith and the leader of our legions” on his birthday the following year.
Fast forward a few decades and Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s impassioned speech in Parliament, following the Opposition’s charges of corruption against his government, is still fresh in memory. Pained at the use of the words “brazenly corrupt and incompetent”, the then PM implored the Opposition to maintain decorum in public life. Such gentlemanly conduct is almost inconceivable in the present political climate. Can you imagine the ever-humble and immensely likeable Mani Shankar Aiyar wishing the “neech” Prime Minister on his birthday?
It could be quite tempting to postulate that the vitriol in Indian politics is a very recent phenomenon. But history tells us otherwise. In 1969, Ram Manohar Lohia derisively referred to Indira Gandhi as a “goongi gudiya” after a nervy budget presentation by the latter in Parliament. Down south, M K Karunaidhi and Jayalalithaa shared a thorny relationship. This can be traced to an incident in March 1989. Jayalalithaa heckled Karunanidhi during his speech in the Assembly.
DMK lawmakers retaliated by attempting to disrobe her on the floor of the legislature. After that, two of Tamil Nadu’s tallest leaders neither shared a dais nor acknowledged each other in public. West Bengal witnessed its own share of acrimony between the Communist leadership and Mamata Banerjee for a large part of the 90s. Things came to a head when Left workers assaulted Banerjee and left her battling for her life with a fractured skull.
In Uttar Pradesh, the BSP and SP became bitter rivals after the “guesthouse scandal”. Following that incident, Mayawati penned multiple chapters about Mulayam Singh Yadav in the BSP’s official history, with colourful titles such as “Mulayam jis thali mein khata hai, usi mein chhed karta hai”. Bitter personal rivalries of regional political satraps often translated into uncontrolled violence between their respective party cadres. Funnily enough, election season has turned sworn enemies into political bedfellows. One wonders how long such opportunistic bonhomie would last.
Gentlemanly conduct by our political leaders is an exception rather than the norm. While this has always been the case for a large part of our history, the conduct of the current political leadership (across the spectrum) is a cause for worry. The fall in the level of discourse has been alarming.
This emboldens supporters to indulge in uncouth behaviour in both the real and virtual worlds. You are more likely to spot a flying pig than come across a civil discussion on social media between supporters of conflicting political ideologies. The hate for “the other” has been normalised.
Ironically, several mainstream journalists have become a part of the very cesspool that they loathe. Instead of being sane voices of reason that could have lent a semblance of sanity to public life, they have been sucked in. The indelible images of a particularly vocal English journalist channelling his inner Mohammad Ali at Madison Square Garden is a sad reminder of how many journalists fail to walk the talk.
Troy is one of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters. In one particularly memorable scene, King Priam enters the Greek camp hoping to retrieve his dead son’s body. A pained Achilles agrees to Priam’s request and states — “You are still my enemy in the morning”. Priam responds by saying — “You are still my enemy tonight but even enemies can show respect”. If our political class wants to bequeath our children a better future, they would do well to heed King Priam’s words.