Woody Allen once said, “In Beverly Hills, they don’t throw their garbage away. They make it into television shows.” While this quote is especially applicable to 24x7 news channels in India, it is difficult to claim that the political discourse in the country even outside the television studios is top-notch. Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), to put it mildly, have not helped. Kejriwal’s claim that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has faked his educational qualifications and forged his degrees is just the latest example. That the Delhi University has contradicted his claims has had little effect on AAP’s histrionics.
The controversy has thrown up two worrying features of the Indian political discourse. The first is the very shallow nature of the discourse itself. The prime minister’s educational qualification is the last concern on the minds of people after two consecutive years of drought have taken a toll on rural, and consequently national, purchasing power. Alleged corruption in the purchase of helicopters from an Italy-based firm is another area of concern. And there are innumerable other relevant issues if one were to scan the length and breadth of this country.
The second is the kind of language in use. Victims of unsavoury language themselves during the Delhi election campaign of 2015, AAP leaders have been quick to fall for the same cheap political thrill. Cabinet ministers of Delhi have used Twitter to ridicule Modi with “#12thPassModi” and accuse him of being an agent of Inter-Services Intelligence, the rogue intelligence agency of Pakistan. To be fair, AAP has no monopoly on crass language and third-rate political rhetoric. Many specimens in other established parties, including the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (think Yogi Adityanath, Giriraj Singh, etc.), behave similarly. The combatants in AAP, however, are led from the very top. Kejriwal has himself, at an earlier instance, called Modi “a coward and a psycopath [sic].”
Top leaders of other parties have also, at various instances, made avoidable comments. At a recent election rally in Kerala, Modi made insinuations about the role of Sonia Gandhi in the helicopter scam on the basis of her Italian origins. While campaigning for the 2007 Gujarat assembly elections, Gandhi had infamously used the phrase “merchants of death” for Modi and his administration. Condemnable as such utterances are, they perhaps can be explained to an extent by the charged atmosphere elections in India generate. However, no explanation can be conceived for a chief minister of an Indian state calling the prime minister of the Union a psychopath.
It is not at all inevitable that political and ideological differences translate into an abject lowering of the discourse and disappearance of interpersonal courtesies. The obituary C. Rajagopalachari wrote weeks after Jawaharlal Nehru’s demise is instructive in this regard. He wrote in Swarajya: “Eleven years younger than me, eleven times more important to the nation, eleven hundred times more beloved of the nation, Sri Nehru has suddenly departed from our midst... I have been fighting Sri Nehru all these ten years over what I consider faults in public policies. But I knew all along that he alone could get them corrected.”
Even today, the grand old men of Indian politics such as Mulayam Singh Yadav, Somnath Chatterjee and Sharad Pawar are good examples in how not to concede an inch politically to the BJP without resorting to foul language. Even Nitish Kumar, whose ego battles with Modi are well-known, has refused to be drawn into the degree controversy, declaring it to be a “non-issue”. But to learn from them would require Kejriwal to shed the illusion that his politics is superior to that of others in India. It simply is not.
An anecdote from the unpublished memoirs of the late filmmaker J.B.H. Wadia is a fitting note to end on. One particular morning in 1938, Wadia and his wife were surprised to find M.N. Roy, a founding member of Communist Party of India and someone Wadia admired immensely, dressed in “a long flowing dhoti in Bengali style, a kurta and shawl and a cap”. Roy cleared the air: “I am going to pay my respects to Veer Savarkar and I thought I should do it in the fittest manner possible. I am sure the old man will be pleased to see me dressed as a full-fledged Indian rather than a Westernised revolutionary.” Savarkar and Roy were ideologically poles apart. Yet, Wadia suspected that Roy “must have touched [Savarkar’s] feet in the traditional Indian way”.
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