Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sobriety is the need of the hour in politics

By Swapan Dasgupta

On June 6, a young man from Rajasthan, said to be a follower of Baba Ramdev, grabbed the headlines by brandishing a shoe at Congress General Secretary Janardhan Dwivedi during a media briefing. Predictably, he was apprehended by the party's resident bouncers. Then the fun and games began. A clutch of party workers began landing blows on the hapless Sunil Kumar. They were joined by many "beat" journalists who had the safety of the Congress uppermost in their mind. To cap it all, even a senior leader like Digvijay Singh joined the mob and was filmed stamping on the felled non-assailant.

By the time the police finally intervened and took Kumar away—whatever happened to him?—everyone in the AICC office was in high spirits. An upbeat Dwivedi proclaimed that the "attack" had been pre-meditated; other Congress leaders claimed it was an RSS-sponsored shoe; and many "beat" journalists must have made merry that evening recounting their role in saving the Congress from a fate worse than George W. Bush.

By itself the shoe waving incident has no real significance. It won't even merit a footnote in future histories of these troubled times. To me, however, what was revealing was not the incident per se, but how the loyalists responded, how the news channels went breathless with excitement and how these in turn shaped the mood within the AICC offices.

Politicians of all descriptions love accolades. In fact, they can't do without a gaggle of party workers telling them 'kamaal kar diya' and singing songs of praise. The headiness of preaching to the converted and being cheered by those sitting in the front rows of a public meeting are addictive. Political parties can't do without political workers and committed supporters. Yet, there is nothing more misleading than what many (particularly BJP) politicians glorify as 'karyakarta ka bhavna' (sentiments of the activists).

Old-time Congress leaders will readily concede how the feedback of party workers during the Emergency turned out to be completely detached from the public mood. Both Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar will be able to testify that the pre-election disgruntlement among their activists wasn't at all reflected in the elections. And basing their conclusions on ground reports, the CPI(M) in West Bengal was convinced of an eighth consecutive Left Front victory.

The reasons for this disconnect are complex. An 'activist', both of the political and civil society/NGO variety, is often transported from normal society into an intellectual ghetto where they only communicate with like-minded people. Their feedback suffers from natural distortions. This is further complicated by the very Indian penchant of saying untruths that are calculated to please. How many karyakartas told Sushma Swaraj that her patriotic dance was untimely and inappropriate?

The reasons for stressing the disconnect between party loyalists (in the case of the Congress, 'royalists' is a more apt category) and the average citizen should be obvious. For the past quarter, the political discourse is getting shriller by the day. Just as every hanger-on in the AICC office thought that landing a blow on a silly Ramdev bhakt was their valiant contribution to the battle against fascism, many Congress leaders believe that abuse is the best form of offence. Calling someone a 'maha thug', 'a joker' or 'a fascist' earns a leader instant applause from the committed and even lifts the morale of the foot soldier. But how is such shrillness received in the rest of society?

Varun Gandhi's infamous 2009 speech inspired a lot of Hindu loonies to think of him as a national leader. What was its national impact? Pure anecdotal evidence suggests that this speech played a significant role in steering a chunk of the middle class, youth vote away from the BJP. As many BJP leaders shamefacedly admitted after voting day, even their children and relatives didn't vote for the party.

At present, the main opposition party is in danger of repeating the same mistakes. The abuse heaped on the Congress' opponents by the Congress office-bearers may well be inspiration to India's lumpen classes. But if this unwholesome rhetoric is replicated by the BJP, it establishes an immoral equivalence that blunts the edges of legitimate criticism of the UPA regime.

Abusive language is a substitute for reasoned arguments. In the case of the BJP, by focussing on replying to Congress abuse in kind, it is missing addressing substantive political issues. The colossal mess in the economy that has contributed to consumer hardships, industrial slowdown and shrinking opportunities for a generation of Indians with soaring aspirations is a black mark against the Government. Yet, have you heard BJP leaders tackle the issue in a sober, informed way?

There is a difference between constant walk-outs and disruptions in Parliament and making substantive points in a dignified way. The BJP is in danger of overlooking the importance of the latter.

In an earlier time L.K. Advani used to say that the BJP was like A.K. Hangal—the good man on the margins of the main Hindi film plot. But this non-glamorous image also made the BJP more and more acceptable to a country fed up with dynastic glamour. Today, there is a similar exasperation with three Congress stars who believe they are still in the silent film era. But positing Mukri and Dada Kondke as alternative role models isn't going to help.

Sobriety not buffoonery is the need of the hour.

Sunday Pioneer, June 19, 2011

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