Opinion Op Ed 10 Jan 2019 Halt toxic discourse ...
The writer is a former ambassador

Halt toxic discourse... Our politics is at its nadir!

Published Jan 10, 2019, 7:49 am IST
Updated Jan 10, 2019, 7:49 am IST
Vigilantism in any name — cow, beef, religion, region — poses one of the biggest threats to India’s social harmony.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Delhi is the world’s most polluted city with its ambient air pollution (AAP) levels on certain days rising to as much as a hundred times acceptable levels, thus causing serious health hazards to millions of citizens, especially young children and the vulnerable.

On the other hand, as the parliamentary elections near, the air is filled with the fumes of toxic discourse. It’s a cacophony of the worst kind — accusations and counter-accusations are hurled at each other with total disregard to the facts. Character assassination is the new normal in Indian politics. Personal attacks aren’t confined to those perceived as the main rivals; their parents, grandparents or other kinfolk aren’t spared, discarding the old Indian tradition of not speaking ill of those who are no more. When a senior minister drags the grandmother of an Opposition leader into his remarks and alleges that corruption was in his DNA, and that MP aggressively pronounces inside and outside Parliament that India’s incumbent Prime Minister is a “thief” and claims that the former President of a friendly nation had said so, this political discourse has reached its nadir! The minister and the MP belong to political parties which have ruled India at the Centre as well as in the states. Is this the image of Indian democracy we want to project abroad? What message are we conveying to the nation’s young, on whose shoulders depends the future of India?

 

The fierce political rhetoric resembles an arena of a freestyle wrestling match with no holds barred, where winning — at any cost — is the ultimate goal. We see a public display of regard for Mahatma Gandhi on his birth or death anniversaries — ritualistically spreading rose petals on his samadhi at Rajghat and garlanding his busts and statues all across India, and singing mechanically: “Vaishanav jan te tene kahiye... pir parayi jane re”. But how many true Gandhians are there in India who have imbibed his values in their day-to-day life?

It appears that India’s political leaders have lapped up, quite indiscriminatingly, two Chinese ideas.

First: You point out a black cat and repeat a thousand times that it’s not black but white; and a stage will come when some people will start believing that it was actually white! Second, it doesn’t matter whether the cat was white or black, so long as it catches mice! Obviously, the Mahatma’s exhortation that noble goals must be pursued through noble means doesn’t appeal to them. Obsessed with the rat race of winning at any cost, they find the philosophy of China’s Great Helmsman Deng Xiaoping far more rewarding, even if it’s not morally correct.
All Prime Ministers of India were nationalist to the core — they took decisions which they thought served the country’s best interests in the prevailing domestic, regional and international circumstances. With hindsight, we may blame them for errors of judgment, but it’s wrong to attribute mala fide intentions to their decisions.

It’s fashionable to blame Jawaharlal Nehru for all the ills afflicting India. He spent 12 years of his life in prison during India’s Independence movement. As PM, he laid the foundation of industrial infrastructure in India, encouraged a scientific and rational temper and led India to play a bigger role internationally than warranted by the nation’s then meagre resources.

There is some merit in criticism of his policy towards China, his acquiescence on Tibet’s takeover by Beijing and on taking the Kashmir issue to the UN. But the basic thrust of his policy — to have peaceful ties with China and Pakistan — has been pursued by every Indian PM. It is doubtful if in 1954, India had the resources and worldwide support to challenge China. The fate of the Kashmir issue at the UN would have been different if the United States, Britain and France hadn’t supported Pakistan.

Isn’t the repeated refrain of certain leaders — only if Nehru hadn’t been the first PM — quite unproductive? One can turn around and say: If Atal Behari Vajpayee, who successfully led a coalition of 22 parties for five years, were still the PM, public discourse wouldn’t have been so toxic, nor personal attacks so vicious? His moving tribute to Nehru on his death is a living testimony of how political leaders can be cordial and respectful towards their political adversaries in spite of their political differences.

An honest analysis and objective assessment will reveal that both the UPA and NDA governments have done a lot for the country. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t have done better. Instead of blaming and digging dirt against each other, why can’t the top leaders of the UPA and the NDA be magnanimous to acknowledge each other’s contribution and seek understanding, accommodation and cooperation on key national priorities, rising above party lines? It can be done, but only if the leaders believe in “India first”, and show maturity, sincerity and leadership.

Most parties indulge in name-calling and levelling charges against each other in highly toxic language. Parties will win elections and lose elections. Governments will be formed and governments will fall. But a nation torn apart by toxic discourse will take a long time to get together. Alas, bit by bit, this toxic discourse is dismembering the idea of “Saare Jehan Se Achcha”!

Couldn’t Prime Minister Narendra Modi, still the most popular national leader, openly pledge: “Na gali galoj karoonga, na karane doonga”? This will be in tune with his principle of “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas”, and rein in the hot-headed motormouths of his party.

The recent attacks on Mr Modi by Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who seems to be relishing his new, aggressive, angry young man avatar, have been coarse, crude and undignified for a person who aspires to be Prime Minister. He should show more respect for the office of the PM.

What rational objection could some politicians have against using the word “Ji” while addressing their rivals? Saying Modiji ,Jaitleyji, Soniaji, Rahulji sounds pleasant to the ears and costs nothing; and it shows etiquette. If ministers and Congress leaders watched the recording of the Lok Sabha exchanges between Jawaharlal Nehru and Atal Behari Vajpayee, they might learn a lesson or two on how to hold a civilised debate without acrimony.

There is a huge gulf between what politicians say in public and what they actually do; and what they say while in power and what when out of power! What is right and what is wrong for them depends on whether they are in power or not!
All parties talk of a development agenda, but as the poll campaign peaks, every trick in the game is used to garner votes, be it caste, religion or region.

Vigilantism in any name — cow, beef, religion, region — poses one of the biggest threats to India’s social harmony. If not checked in time, we risk of going down the path of China’s disastrous Cultural Revolution. Building a national consensus to put this genie back in the bottle is the need of the hour.

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