Whatever happened to dialogue, grace, and civility?

Whatever happened to dialogue, grace, and civility?

In the wake of the carnage in Christchurch, photographs of Prime Minister Ardern embracing the families of the victims were broadcast around the world and hailed as the behaviour of an exemplary leader. She was praised for acting with empathy and compassion in the face of a horrific attack on her country. 

Just a few days earlier, in India, following another horrific attack on soldiers the almost immediate reaction from Prime Minister Modi was the promise of a ‘jaw-breaking response’ and threats of aggression against a neighbouring country.  More recently, when Rahul Gandhi tweeted about hatred being cowardice and said that he would always deal from a position of love despite the hatred around him, the response from the president of the BJP, Amit Shah, was to mock him for his delusion. 

Unlike the ancient Greeks’ exhortation to ‘dedicate ourselves to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world’, in recent times, the response from the rulers and the ruled alike has been to react to violence with violence. The threat of violent response hangs heavy in the air. Everyone seems ready to provoke and be provoked. Whatever happened to dialogue, grace, and civility? 

In a country as large as India, with its complex problems, a tremendous amount of time has been spent in the performance and spectacle of politics. Perhaps it is easier to avoid taking on the real issues. It may be easier to simply position oneself as a hero with heroic physical dimensions and qualities than as a leader with empathy and a concrete plan that can be implemented.  Why does no one ever speak of kindness and compassion as desirable qualities in a leader? 

What would a kind, empathetic, compassionate leader in the Indian context look like? If the kinds of leaders we elect are a reflection of ourselves, what does this constant chest thumping say about us as a people? We have time and again failed to protect our weakest. We have failed always in providing relief to those who suffer the most. 

Even as we race to build the biggest statue, the fastest train, the most destructive space capabilities, the missiles that reach the farthest, we fail to find a solution to manual scavenging, we fail to provide clean air for our children, succour to our farmers, protect our forests, clean up our rivers, provide justice and shelter to the most oppressed sections of society. 

Surely, one need not be a left-leaning liberal to want to show empathy and compassion to our weakest. Surely, it cannot be anti-national or unpatriotic to ask our politicians to show some kindness to the sections of our society that need our attention and care the most. Surely it cannot hold true that liberalism always means kindness and conservatism always means unkindness. 

President Obama once said that kindness covers all his political beliefs. The discourse on kindness in politics has been part of the American political landscape in one form or another. Indian politicians across the spectrum promise sums of money, three meals a day, guaranteed employment, and housing to people living below the poverty line. Scheme after scheme, subsidies, reservations, and other forms of relief are promised in every election and in every speech. And yet, sections of the ruling elite have no compunction siding with the arrest of a scholar who was holding a discussion on how to tackle hunger in the country.

We don’t merely seem to have lost the art of kindness but civility as well. When was the last time we had a debate or discussion that did not turn into a free for all? Everything seems to become an angry lashing out instead of a civilised debate with a genuine agenda to understand the other side. Some would say this was simply an extension of the hyper-masculinity that is all-pervasive at the moment and that we must burn down the patriarchy immediately.

Prime Minister Modi and his supporters are always claiming his bravery in the face of various challenges. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra recently spoke of her brother’s exceptional courage. When was the last time India had a politician or political leader who was praised for his compassion? In a recent interview, Rahul Gandhi said that he fights for fairness. A just ruler who seeks fairness for all has often been considered the ideal. Perhaps to strive for true justice or fairness, one must first strive for genuine compassion for our fellow humans. Perhaps we also need to remember that kindness is, after all, the bravest act of all. 


(Serene Kasim is a Bangalore-based communications professional)