Home >opinion >Pranab-da is right, say no to a binary discourse

Last week, in an interview to India Today television channel, Pranab Mukherjee, the former President of India, made a very pertinent observation. The biggest takeaway from his 48 years of public life, he said, “I learnt a fundamental lesson that there is nothing comparable to debate and discussion and exchange of views in Parliament. Of course, there is dissension. For the success of parliamentary democracy, this lesson should be learnt by everyone who wants to serve through Parliament."

Yes, it was a stinging admonishment, like a school master serving a dressing down to his errant class, by Pranab-da (as he is fondly referred to). At the same time, the former president has actually put the finger on India’s biggest problem—lack of a dialogue. It is true of almost every institution in this country; worryingly they also make up the foundations of Indian democracy.

The frequent logjams in Parliament may have been the trigger for the former president’s observations no doubt, but look around and we would soon realize that this is true of every facet of Indian society (actually, it is also true for most of the world too). The lack of dialogue has created a binary environment wherein the defining maxim is “my way or the highway".

Exactly why is the state of polity in India so hyper-polarized? The outcome is what scholars call political tribalism. Under this, society and consequently its polity gets defined along tribal lines, where loyalty is to the tribe—implicitly nixing the idea of dialogue to overcome differences.

Seen this way, growing intolerance to any contrarian view should not surprise anyone. We now take offence over differences in our dietary preferences, attire and cultural traits—all of which are the admirable characteristics of an amalgamation achieved over several centuries and inked in the Constitution by the founding fathers.

In some ways, it is the growth of technology which is enabling the ecosystem for such negative circumstances to prosper. An erudite acquaintance summed it up best by pointing out that skewed media consumption (especially social media) patterns together with opinion journalism and fake news are fostering information echo-chambers—preconditions for fostering a dialogue-less society.

Four years ago, this column had dwelled on the same issue; unfortunately things have only worsened since. Even a cursory glance at the acerbic social media interactions or television/media debates will make this apparent. They are nothing but gladiator like verbal confrontations with partisan crowds rooting for their choice. Not surprising then that in the rapidly expanding binary society eyeballs (with advertisers in their tow) follow these confrontations.

It is exactly in such moments when institutions like Parliament, government, universities, media, judiciary and civil society become important. Their collective strength (like when Emergency was imposed in 1975) is enough to brush off such challenges and re-emphasize the democratic credentials so critical for India to survive as a nation state. Unfortunately, over the last seven decades, these institutions have been undermined partly deliberately and though internal sabotage. Consequently, these institutions are at their most vulnerable self—tragically at a time when the idea of Indian democracy is facing its gravest threat.

So is there hope? Of course. Indian democracy has its impressive history to fall back upon; many other countries have failed to stick to the path of democracy, while India has survived shocks. Yet, it is a fact that time is not on its side.

The first step in revitalizing the country’s institutions is to revive the moderate space. Due to the binary discourse, this moderate space has been all but squeezed out. Once restored it will foster the scope for dialogue.

So listen to Pranab-da.

Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.

His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus.

Respond to this column at anil.p@livemint.com.

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