Public discourse-Then and now

Raman Bhalla
The year of 1991 was not the year of economic reforms only. It wasn’t an important date in the nation’s calendar only in so far as we opened our businesses, small and big, to the competitive spirit and ideology of the outsiders. It was not about us changing as economic beings only. It was much more than that. It was about the transformation that dawned upon us as moral and social beings. It was about the way we started perceiving ourselves in a curiously material sense where interpersonal relations could exist and thrive only, if they had some economic value. And it was about transiting from being sensitive humans to deadened zombies, who would hereafter only react to the material impulses.
Quite paradoxically, when we were closed to the outside world, we were much more open to one other. We had time and, more importantly, though we would stint and save in our homes, we would readily part with our savings in case some body needed it. There were indeed vast tracts of deprivations in the oasis of riches. But there was dignity in the deprivations. There was pride in small possessions. There was dignity in wants, discourse and even death. Today we are straddling the world of great economic uncertainty like a self possessed colossus. But this colossus is unthinking, insensitive and spiritually shallow and like all the corporal entities with a shelf life, it will also come apart sooner or later.
Nowhere the impact of moral degeneration is as stark as in the political world. The discourse in our present day political life has touched nadir and the way it is progressively getting murkier by the day, it may even redefine the bounds of nadir. Differences in ideologies and perceptions have always been there in the Indian political scene. What would the politics be, if it is not accompanied with its rough and tumble; and if it is not scheming and intriguing. Who can forget Nehru’s tiffs with Patel? They were legendary and are even quoted today for their intellection. They were sharp, issue-based, intended to hit home, but seldom below the belt. They were far cry from the harangues we hear on a daily basis these days. Though the opposition those days did not quite have the political space and voice of the present day opposition and, therefore, had all the more reason to cry foul at every foible of the government, the exchanges between the government and the opposition were never insulting to the wisdom and intelligence of the people and those they were aimed at. There was certain degree of respect that was never sought to be undermined. There was a self imposed lakshman rekha that no one dared to cross. Such dignity, by and large, embellished and livened up at once the political intercourse in this country, barring a few forgettable exceptions like during emergency, up until 1990.
Today, it is free for all. There is certain no holds barred streak in what our politicians and even activists do and say these days. They can name and shame any body without any remorse. In today’s India, you can malign anybody and without evidence at that. You have to so much as only vaguely refer to some reports, some dated court’s judgements and sometimes trite statements by an adversary. The case gets built up; media is co-opted as an unwilling accomplice and grandstanding unleashed big time on the national hook-ups. In this soap opera, the onus is always put upon the defamed to overcome the infamy himself even as in the 24X7 entertainment that ensues at the expense of the defamed, judgement gets delivered even before the trial has begun.
The question that has often been asked, but not answered, is why do politicians and activists indulge in this name and shame exercise. Perhaps, there is a sense of quixtoicism in them that the stakes lost at the hustings can be redeemed by taking cheap potshots. May be they are hardwired for impromptu name calling and mudslinging hoping that it would stick and undercut the credibility of the government. Perhaps, they feel that the India of post -90 bristles with unsuspecting and gullible people who can be shepherded into buying fiction as fact. May be they believe that they could insult the wisdom and intelligence of the people of India and get away with it.
There are three instances where the public discourse has been similarly soured in recent times. First, on Robert Vadra’s truck with the DLF. This column is not meant as his defence. But surely in Vadra’s case, the line between him being a businessman and a relative of a political family has been blurred on purpose. If his dealings with the DLF are not above board, facts would come out tumbling in the relevant government department’s audit by the CAG in case the state land has been alienated cheaply or free of cost to the DLF to secure the alleged quid pro quo for Vadra. In addition, the financial statements of the DLF are subjected to regular corporate audit scrutiny and should there be any underhand dealings, the same would not escape the prying eye of the auditor, especially in the post-Satyam era where corporate’s cookie jar accounting tricks are not perceived as going with the territory . Clearly, there are regulatory frameworks within which the corporate behaviour can be appraised and those with their hands in till caught and punished. Given the long odds against the mischief, Arvind Kejriwal’s attempt to drag the first family of the Indian politics into what is otherwise a bilateral affair of the two business groups and, in the process, take his activism right at the doorsteps of the 7RCR and 10 Janpath smacks of motivated ends.
Second, the SAD’s calling Rahul Gandhi a national joke on an issue that is so sensitive is another one of those lows in the public discourse that the Indian politics could do without. Rahul had simply stated that a sizeable section of the Punjabi youth has fallen prey to the abuse of drug addiction. There was no attempt to insinuate and impute motives. At the heart of it all was only an attempt to awaken consciousness about the malaise. That the SAD sought to see it as their indictment and react in the manner it did reveals that at some level it holds itself morally culpable for the malaise. Frankly, given that it has been in power for decades in Punjab, it can’t escape moral culpability on the issue. In that sense, the joke is on the SAD and not on Rahul.
Third, Narendra Modi’s barb on Sonia Gandhi’s foreign trips being paid out of the national coffers was inane, particularly as the sum being bandied out as having been expended was incredibly big. Surely, such an amount can not be spent unauthorisedly without running the risk of being red-flagged in a financial inspection. No public functionary, least of all, Sonia Gandhi would run up such huge public expenses and be exposed to the credibility issues. Later, the falsehood was nailed, as the PMO clarified she had not travelled on the state expenses at all. Be that as it may, Modi’s linking her off-shore travels with her ailment amounted to stooping too low to ingratiate himself with his constituents. It is not known whether or not he endeared himself with his voters, but, surely, he caused the political discourse to plumb new inglorious depths.
India has been a thriving democracy for more than fifty years now. Significantly, it has found its feet and is poised to emerge from here to newer heights. However, India will not be known only by the freedom of its institutions and people. It will also be known for the nobility of thoughts of its people and respect they lend to the public discourse. A negative discourse does not necessarily have to be venal, noxious and abusive. It can very well be sarcastic and satirical. If the idea is to put the opponent in his place, sarcasm and satire, and not the outright abuse, should do the job for us.
( The writer is a Minister for Revenue, Relief and Rehabilitation in the State Government)

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