Telengana chief minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR) is a democratically elected leader. This week he has recommended the dissolution of the Telengana Assembly, and this has been accepted by the governor. In the press conference where he announced his decision to dissolve the Assembly, he made a frontal attack on Rahul Gandhi, calling him “the biggest buffoon in the country”.
KCR is entitled to his point of view, but I have a foundational problem with the manner in which he expressed it. However competitive — and acrimonious — democratic politics may have become today, are leaders free to completely ignore the expected restraints of public articulation? Political leaders may have differences with others — and in a democracy this is not only inevitable but perhaps desirable as well — this does not entitle them to abuse each other? To oppose another party, or its leader, is one thing. But, to do so, by resorting to personalised attacks, in words that have no connect with linguistic restraint, is quite another. The word “buffoon” is clearly abusive, and does little credit to a democratically elected leader in the world’s largest democracy.
How did Mr Rao expect the Congress Party or Mr Gandhi to respond? One local Congress spokesman rose to the bait and called KCR a bigger buffoon, who behaves like Hitler. In this kind of discourse, each could call the other the “biggest idiot”, or the “biggest fool” or a “total joker”. Soon the debate could descend to lower levels, and involve the use of expletives. This downward spiral of political discourse could well end in fisticuffs.
The central point I am trying to raise is not about one party or one leader. My concern is about the worsening quality of discourse in India. Members of the political class are without doubt the most guilty of this crime, and, in this sense, KCR is not an exception. Just the other day, a senior member of the BJP — and a Cabinet minister in the Central government to boot — said that Mr Gandhi is a “naali ka keeda”, a gutter insect. Does such language add lustre to this gentleman’s political profile, and does the fact that many spokespersons of the BJP seemed to defend what he said, add dignity to their party? There are other offenders too, and they come from all sides of the political spectrum.
Citizens are mute spectators to this kind of discourse. Leaders want their vote, but do very little, through this kind of language, to win their respect. There was a time in our country when even the most bitter political hostility was conveyed with civility. This did not dilute or weaken the attack. On the contrary, the use of irony, sarcasm, understatement and wit, strengthened the attack. It was expected that however great the political differences, a certain maryada or decorum must prevail in public life.
Moreover, political rivalry was about differences on policy and principle. They were rarely reduced to a personal attack on the person in the form of abuse. Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose had, even as part of the same party, major differences as regards strategy and tactics. But a perusal of their letters shows unmistakably that while they remained resolute about their views, they disagreed with civility, and never reduced the dialogue to vituperation. Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi disagreed with each other on many occasions. This too comes out clearly in the letters they wrote to each other. But, the discourse was always about issues, and never about undignified name calling.
Perhaps Atal Behari Vajpayee is one of the best examples one can quote about how to maintain linguistic decorum even when provoked to the utmost. He responded to criticism with vigour, and with an eloquence that was unmatched. But his eloquence had class. It never degenerated to personal attack, invective or foul language. On the contrary, it was elevated by his ability to use satire and humour to decimate his opponents in a debate. It was for this reason that he was one of the finest parliamentarians India has ever seen.
What has happened to the great civilisational legacy of India, which taught us to differ with dignity, to disagree without rancour and to attack without becoming personal? India may be a young nation, but it is one of the oldest civilisations. This civilisation was one of the first in the world to introduce the concept of shastrartha or civilised debate, where you could have a dialogue — even with an ideological opponent — with decorum. In fact, many of the greatest bhashyas or commentaries written in ancient India include, with respect, the point of view of the ideological opponent.
The question that all Indian citizens need to ask today is why politics has degenerated to a point where personalised attacks in unparliamentary language have become par for the course? Either those who use such language believe that people at large approve of this. Frankly, I don’t believe so. Or, they think that because they are in power they have the licence to say anything they want in any manner they like. This, I think, is more likely. But, the time has come for citizens themselves to tell such leaders that this form of undignified hubris is in very poor taste and will be punished.
As we move towards the 2019 general elections, we are likely to see far more examples of linguistic diarrhoea. Tempers will rise, hate speeches will abound, personal attacks will proliferate and vitriol will be in full flow. The difference between truth and untruth will blur, so long as anything said — accusation or defence — gets the desired votes. But, somewhere, a silent prayer also needs to be made that sanity is not entirely shelved. For a leader to call another leader “the biggest buffoon” is bad enough. For an entire nation to be reduced to malicious buffoonery in the name of politics is unforgiveable. All of us — and especially our political class — need to remember that we are legatees of a refined and ancient civilisation, and not only the playthings of a handful of foul-mouthed politicians.