The war of words is getting hotter as the nation approaches the 2019 general election, and Assembly elections in states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Telangana before 2018 is out. A criminal defamation suit against Congress MP Shashi Tharoor by a BJP member is an index of the poll temperature. His reproduction or repeating of a 2012 remark attributed by a magazine to an unknown unidentified RSS leader may, as a metaphor, be apt in the literal sense about any scorpion sitting on a sacred idol. While its use by a litterateur may be disappointing, it doesn’t change the fact that criminal defamation is an archaic provision, a hangover from colonial times, which has no place in a modern nation. Criminalising malice, specially in the political sphere, doesn’t speak well of a democracy that swears by free speech (Article 19), even if with reasonable restrictions.
It’s another matter vulgar abuse is fast becoming the language of political discourse; it’s almost standard now. Such abuse isn’t always defamatory, although one expects some restraint among the political class at least when it comes to the Prime Minister, who holds a constitutional office, and the president of the main Opposition party. While Rahul Gandhi has directly called Narendra Modi a liar, there have been enough hints in the PM’s speeches on who he’s targeting. The exchanges leave us wondering about the country itself, if those at the top in public life believe the other isn’t truthful. It’s not by defamation suits that truth can be established. Politicians tend to be vituperative at the hustings; but we would recommend some restraint.