The TM Krishna column: The quality of public debate in India is dismal, the cue comes from Modi

With the Karnataka polls round the corner, we are waiting for the prime minister’s next comment that damages our institutional, political or cultural fabric.

The Gujarat elections held last month are done and dusted. The Bharatiya Janata Party is not sure whether it should consider this marginal win a victory and the Congress, the sleeping beauty, may have just awakened from its slumber. As the new year begins, and the final act in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s term unveils itself, we are left wondering what to expect. We are also waiting for the next comment from our prime minister that damages our institutional, political or cultural fabric. There is another election round the corner, in Karnataka. And if Modi continues in this direction, we must brace ourselves for many more “innuendos and falsehoods”.

We should be terribly concerned that our prime minister makes outlandish accusations about people who have occupied the highest offices of this country with absolute impunity, and without a shred of evidence. Here is a man who does not miss even the tiniest opportunity to thump his chest and drill into our heads that he is the ideal patriot. But he does not think it unethical to covertly imply that a former Army chief, a former prime minister and a former vice-president who were present at a dinner hosted by suspended Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar for his friend, former Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri, on December 6 were in some way complicit in a treacherous act. In one stroke, Modi undermined the dignity of three of our most respected public offices, entirely unbecoming of a prime minister.

But this is not the first time that we have witnessed polarisation or fear-mongering being the crux of Modi’s election statements. During the Uttar Pradesh elections in February-March, he went out of his way to divide Muslims and Hindus. Now, we have to accept this as a strategy, a conscious, ugly tactic that will raise its head to assure the BJP a win. While the prime minister cannot be held responsible for what BJP chief ministers, MPs and MLAs spout every other day, he is leading the way. It is this trickle-down effect that is far more dangerous. Every time Modi crosses that invisible line of public decorum, he is informing those down the Sangh Parivar hierarchical line of what and how he thinks. Hence, the secular and fair comments that he airs in his Mann Ki Baat radio show or at the Red Fort on August 15 matter little to the field worker. Their minds are already made up and they cleverly filter out Modi’s kind overtures, attributing it to the compulsions of his office. This prime minister who makes insinuations and snide remarks with regularity is responsible for the perpetual state of fear that has made its home in the minds of most of India’s minorities. As I write this piece, Christians are being threatened and assaulted by members of the Sangh Parivar. Those perpetrating these crimes are deriving their confidence from the statements made by the prime minister and his choreographed, carefully chosen silences.

What is even more shocking is how many in this country consider Modi’s utterances courageous and tenacious. Have we sunk to such a low that we are unable to keep aside our political affiliations and recognise this for what it is – unabashed divisiveness emanating from India’s highest political office? I am shocked by how Modi is considered holier than thou and allowed to say and do whatever he wants. We have become a blind and unthinking lot, reeling under the spell of a master magician.

Not to be left behind, Mani Shankar Aiyar did what he does best, making uncourteous and socially problematic remarks about Modi – calling him a “neech kisam ka aadmi” or a low-life. To the Congress’s credit, it took immediate action against Aiyar by suspending him from primary membership of the party. But I wonder if we would have witnessed a similar and immediate reaction if their silver-tongued orator had been the accused and not this disgruntled Congressman.

Where are the ideas?

But there are larger questions to be asked about the quality of public debate in India. Where have all the ideas gone? I am ashamed at the vacuum that is evident in the words of our political leaders. Jargon, templated statements and slogans pepper the speeches of individuals who are clueless about India’s emotional, cultural and social direction. Their understanding of the country is myopic and limited to furthering the needs of just those whose votes are guaranteed. This is definitely not a new phenomenon, but the multiplier effect of the past few decades or more that is now being felt. We have elected people who lack imagination and passion for this land; most of them being mere operators.

I was born in the 1970s and whatever I have learnt about BR Ambedkar, Jayaprakash Narayan, Jawaharlal Nehru, Periyar, C Rajagopalachari or Subhas Chandra Bose is from published speeches, letters or debates. Reading them not only instils national pride, it also invigorates me intellectually. Here were people of discernment, insight and prescience who openly shared their vision of the country. And that is the crux. They were farsighted, felt deeply for India, and painted a landscape that was large and inclusive. In their dream, every citizen was an equal active participant. They wished for a country of care, love, prosperity and empathy. Their passion for the country impelled them to listen, respect and learn from each other. We were fortunate that people of diverse philosophies contested one another’s observations and socio-political positions. It is from those informed arguments that we have built a robust political system. But today, we are living amid ruins where the words of these past masters have become valueless. Their words are now used selectively to twist and exploit our minds.

Parliament vacuum

Discussions inside Parliament are no better. Keeping aside the interruptions that have become political habit, rarely is anything substantive or ideational discussed by the elected members. Parliament sessions are so pointless that even one sensible exchange is celebrated as an example of our vibrant democracy. The situation is so dire that we need to hold on to every glimmer of hope. Instead of inspiring us, our parliamentarians embarrass us on a regular basis. The only parliamentarian who has consistently held his own and given the debates gravitas is the former Rajya Sabha member Sitaram Yechury.

We are being treated like mindless children who can be controlled with fear and the occasional lollypop. 2018 awaits us but, more importantly, 2019 – and the next general elections – is round the corner. We have to say enough is enough to Modi and force him to change his discourse and demand that the Congress and every other Opposition party live up to the highest standards of public life. They have all failed us so far. Irrespective of who wins in 2019, unless we change in a hurry, we will continue to slip deeper into this hole that we have dug for ourselves.

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