Wednesday, 12 December 2012

* Today, leaders in the public sphere get defined not by their ideas but by their antics

Just as a few victories in limited overs cricket do not equip a team for Tests, loud-mouthed aggression in politics does not generate governing capacity or trust among citizens.

In the build-up to the Championship Trophy T20 cricket series early this year, the sponsor, a soft drinks company, unveiled an interesting advertisement campaign, which showed an ill-mannered Bollywood actor making a virtue of being rude and impertinently ad-libbing the catchline: “Boss, ye T20 cricket hai; na tameez se khela jata hai, na tameez se dheka jata hai (This is T20 cricket; it is neither played nor watched with decorum).” This charming invitation to forget our manners and etiquette is an extraordinary in-your-face celebration of the new cultural mood of loudmouthedness, a deliberate disdain towards obligations of dignity and decency.

Perhaps the clever manipulation of cricket-centric emotions was merely a reflection of the new national rowdy habit of conducting dialogue and conversation. This habit has come to rest on a simple formula: no restraint, no boundaries, no nuance, no subtlety, no time for class or technique, no thought for long-term consequences, just a victory, here and now. 

Infectious mood
How infectious this mood has already become was evident in last week’s debate in Parliament on the FDI issue. In the manner of a limited overs contest, the debate degenerated into a raw confrontation between the ruling party and its detractors.

Sushma Swaraj, Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, otherwise a mild-mannered leader with a becoming sobriety, gave in to this mood — with totally unintended consequences. Not satisfied with being personal and offensive to the Congress president, she shrilly suggested that the Uttar Pradesh-based parties — the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party — were obliged to help the government out because the Central Bureau of Investigation had been unleashed on the leaders of these two outfits.

As she saw it, the issue was not the presumed merits or deficiencies in the government’s initiative; rather it was a simple matter of “FDI vs. CBI” — a classic T20 formulation.

But as with the new kind of cricket so in the political arena, aggression and recklessness cannot remain the monopoly of one side; the rules give all other protagonists the same freedom to respond in a manner of their choice.

It was left to Ms Mayawati — habitually denounced by the self-appointed arbiters of good taste and intellectual rationality — to take on the Leader of the Opposition, and reframe the issue. In particular, Ms Mayawati served notice that the BJP’s cultivated T20 bad manners would not go unanswered and would, in fact, invite retaliation in kind. She did more than that. The BSP leader framed her argument in an institutional context: a government defeat would embolden the BJP to continue its two-year-old strategy of parliamentary disruption, a technique that had already eroded parliamentary institutions’ credibility and respect.

Like everyone else, Ms Mayawati knew that a setback on the FDI issue would have been much more than a defeat for the Manmohan Singh government. It would have advertised to every stakeholder at home and abroad that the Indian parliamentary system was no longer able to generate for the executive the requisite legislative sanction behind any kind of policy coherence. She unwittingly ended up providing a much-needed refurbishing to the basic scheme of our constitutional arrangements.
Last week’s debate underscored a larger purpose: the inherent fairness of our constitutional design. The BSP leader indicated that her party and its social constituency of the lower castes and classes see merit in making good use of the parliamentary processes to demand and secure their share of the national pie. Unlike the Anna crowd and its political partner, the National Democratic Alliance, the BSP, at least, has every reason to want to abide by the Constitution because it knows that it is only the Constitution of India and its promise of an egalitarian order that would enable the marginal groups to secure a fair deal for themselves.

It is indeed somewhat mystifying as to why Ms Swaraj, who otherwise has the temperament of a one-down batsman in a five-day cricket test match, got seduced into recklessness. Perhaps the only explanation is that the BJP (as also its cheerleaders in the media) has been taken in by the success notched up by the Gujarat Chief Minister in the style of a limited overs-swashbuckler.

In fact, Narendra Modi is the first political leader of some consequence who has built up an aura around himself by rough-talking. His handlers have crafted a macho image for him, which now critically hinges on his perceived ready and uninhibited willingness to bad-mouth anyone; he has been projected as having the ability to “take on” anyone, and that he is unafraid of any holy cow. Mr. Modi is loud and immodest in self-praise and self-promotion; unrestrained in his nasty comments about Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. He tickles our baser instincts, makes us feel good in our small-mindedness. So invidious a toll has the Modi-type aggression taken on our collective sensibilities that a gentle, soft-spoken Manmohan Singh is dismissed in middle class conversations as a namby-pamby. 

New media
That aggression has been exponentially facilitated by the new media. The electronic news channels have done their own bit in promoting this itch to be boorish. The shouting and bad manners that passes for “discussion” and “debate” on television has bred a culture of low tolerance and baser prejudices. The middle classes who otherwise take pride in their refinement in taste and cultural immersions find themselves addicted to the display of bad manners, hectoring and scolding night after night. It was this T20 culture that provided the perfect background for the India Against Corruption “movement.” 

Carnivals of accusation
Anna and his gang mesmerised us with their own version of loudmouthed righteous denunciation. They staged vastly entertaining carnivals of accusation, where a handful of honest deshbhakts gave the appearance of taking on a whole legion of the corrupt and venal. For a while it seemed that name calling had become our national pastime. But they lost the plot when Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan went overboard and accused even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of being corrupt. Anna’s so-called team melted away when the corporate sponsors tightened the purse-strings, and its warriors got entangled in their internal acrimonious contradictions. But the nation — particularly the middle classes — have got addicted to the daily dose of name calling. It is this addiction that periodically goads Kejriwal & Co. to make a nuisance of itself outside this or that VIP’s residence, hoping that the Delhi Police will get provoked into acting ham-handedly.

Violence in our daily political discourse is bound to breed violent proclivities in political society. The very fact that anchors can no longer talk softly in front of television cameras prompts everyone else to raise their voices and shout down others with unreasonableness, anger and acrimony. Political rivals are increasingly finding it difficult to communicate across lines of hardening polarisation. Political parties first find themselves having to field a few Rottweilers on the nightly name-calling contests, and then get trapped in the studio-generated bad vibes and bad blood. A take-no-prisoners attitude has come to dominate even routine political exchanges.

This approach to public life has distracted political parties from their basic mandate: to initiate their cadres into ideas and ideology, and then empower them to take the case to the citizens at large. Today, leaders in the public sphere get defined not by their ideas but by their antics. Their T20 orientation does not equip political leaders for the time-consuming, painstaking, unglamorous chores of governance. The polity is losing its capacity to serve both society and the state.

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