Dumbing down of Indian politics

It is time the government reflects on how people can be held together in a democratic political community instead of instructing them on how to live their lives.

Updated - May 16, 2016 12:41 pm IST

Published - May 16, 2016 12:27 am IST

Today's leaders:“Instead of visionary statesmen, we have showmen who are in the business of self-promotion.” File photo of a BJP poster before the New Delhi Assembly elections, at a bus stop in the capital. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Today's leaders:“Instead of visionary statesmen, we have showmen who are in the business of self-promotion.” File photo of a BJP poster before the New Delhi Assembly elections, at a bus stop in the capital. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Our ruling dispensation draws heavily upon the symbols and rituals of Hinduism to justify its authority. But leaders of this brand of politics do not seem to be conversant with discourses on statecraft in Brahmanical texts of ancient India. Consider Santi Parva , the twelfth episode of the Mahabharata , in which the patriarch Bhishma tutors a dithering monarch of Hastinapur, Yudhishthira, on the responsibilities of a ruler. Wending a leisurely way through the intellectual thickets of statecraft, geography, metaphysics, the cosmos, mythology, genealogy, history, and Sankya and Yoga philosophy, Bhishma finally speaks of the obligations of the ruler.

The first obligation of the ruler is to ensure prabhavaya , or prosperity of his subjects. The second is dharna , the holding together of all human beings. A righteous ruler must not draw arbitrary boundaries between those who ‘belong’ and those who do not. The third obligation is that of non-violence. The rules of Raj Dharma thus place limits on power.

Where is the emphasis on dharna?

Let us fast forward to the > 2014 Lok Sabha elections that swept Narendra Modi into power . In speeches laced with demagoguery, contempt for political opponents, and asides that verged on the abusive, he paid ritual obeisance to development and transformed it into an abracadabra mantra. Spectacularly missing was an emphasis on dharna , of ways of bringing diverse Indians together through non-discrimination, justice, and non-violence.

This glaring omission accounts for the complete bankruptcy of political debates today. Societies as complex as India are not held together by ‘development’; they are bound by awareness of human desire for equality, dignity, and justice. Democracy is not primarily about elections or ‘development’; it is about the recognition of citizens as possessing irreducible status, as people who count. There are certain things that must be done for them, and there are things that must not be done to them. This precept foregrounds the one central norm of democracy — that each and every citizen is of value and he or she must be accorded the respect due to him or her.

But development does not recognise this aspect of collective life at all. In the name of development, agents appropriate natural resources and cause environmental disasters. The chariot of greed has displaced millions of people, and resulted in floating populations with no homes, steady jobs, or security against the exigencies of everyday life. For millions of Indians, development is not about prabhavaya , let alone dharna or non-violence.

Of course we need development. But this concept is not a value in itself; it is a means to an end. Human beings are capable of planning out what they want to do with their lives. Instead of monitoring the books we read, the music we hear, the films we see, the conversations we have, the democratic state has to provide the preconditions for doing so. That is development.

The failure to value the normative component of statecraft has led to a dumbing down of political discourse. What we have are > people being forced to mouth a vacant ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai!’ at the risk of exile . Mindless nationalism has emptied out the coffers of political discourse. It is time we put nationalism in its place, as a property of a political community which nurtures a sense of belonging. Belonging comes through experiences of justice, not through the mouthing of pointless slogans even as custodians of the public good ransack resources with impunity. It is time the government reflects on how people can be held together in a democratic political community instead of instructing them how to live their lives.

Focussing on non-issues It is precisely because the normative components of justice, equality and toleration have not been privileged as the guiding features of our body politic that our energies are spent on non-issues. The media has expended many hours discussing whether the > Prime Minister and Human Resources Development Minister > Smriti Irani have degrees from some university or the other. Is it not more important to see whether Mr. Modi has learnt anything from the basic courses of political science? Sadly, our political scientist who speaks like a prophet of the Old Testament — all thunder, fire and brimstone — does not raise his voice against the injustice that cadres of his beloved Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh wreak on hapless people.

Nor does he bother to listen to the voice of the political community that elected him to power. I wish for once, just once, he would stop lecturing us, exactly the way a school teacher speaks down to recalcitrant school children, and heed what citizens of India want, desire, and aspire for. Democracy recognises that ordinary people possess political competence and are entitled to participate in policy discussions. They have a right to be heard and to hold their representatives to account for acts of omission and commission. That is why democracy is worthwhile. But a complete non-understanding of the value of democracy by the present leadership has led to dire impoverishment of our political discourse.

Consider, for instance, the ironies of the > Swachch Bharat campaign . I am perfectly aware of the virtues of sanitation. But is the manner in which the campaign has been conceptualised and put into practice up to the mark? The insincerity of the entire campaign was wonderfully captured in a photograph of Hema Malini advertising for Swachch Bharat. Saree tucked in, she wields with considerable inexperience a long broom, even as ten security guards who cluster around her watch.

Perhaps the fault lies not in the leaders we have got, but in us. The 2014 elections were an indication of the summer of our disgruntlement. Disenchantment with petty party politics, major corruption, and non-delivery on promises generated great hope: that a man riding a white horse and brandishing a swirling sword will come thundering in and solve all our problems. If in the process our party system and democracy are wiped out, so be it. We forget that the problems of society need collective understanding and action. Above all, these problems can be resolved only when people who aspire to power understand the complexity that is India.

That they do not is clear. Instead of visionary statesmen — and India had such statesmen in the past — we have showmen who are in the business of self-promotion. In New Delhi, you see this ridiculous self-promotion. On the walls of metro stations and in trains, on the back of vehicles, in bus stations, and on every available wall are pasted photographs of either a non-smiling Arvind Kejriwal, or of the Prime Minister.

Give us a break, guys. If we have to look at men while travelling in Delhi, let us have someone worth looking at, maybe Ranbir Kapoor. At least we can live in a world of make-believe for some time, and escape a leadership which has dumbed down our politics and our people so dreadfully.

(Neera Chandhoke is a former Professor of Political Science, Delhi University)

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