Politics by hate speech

Politics by hate speech

The vitriolic speeches during the recent Delhi Assembly election and the riots that followed mark a new low in Indian politics. Jarring, crude, and unedifying, hate speech, incitement to violence, and verbal intimidation have descended to depths that cast serious doubts about our collective ability to be civil and courteous in our public discourse. Though most parties resort to rancorous rhetoric, the main culprit in the present instance is the BJP. 

Two trends are fairly obvious. First, most often the same individuals repeatedly malign. Their targets are predictable: minorities, women, and dissenters. Second, barring the occasional slap on the wrist, virtually no one suffers any negative consequences. Thus, Dilip Ghosh, MP and president of the West Bengal BJP, excoriated female students of Jadavpur University and anti-CAA protesters with impunity. Tathagata Roy, Governor of Meghalaya, is another claimant to this distinction. Others include Prime Minister Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, parliamentarians Subramanian Swamy, Anantkumar Hegde, and so on. The list is long and continues to grow. Some try to be nuanced; most can’t be bothered with niceties. NDTV’s research reveals that since 2014, spiteful diatribes have grown almost 500%, and the main transgressors are members of the Hindu right.

While the literati bemoan vulgarity in public life, lay followers celebrate the ‘boldness’ of their leaders. Several media outlets mimic these trends to gain committed followers. Hate mongering is a lucrative, low risk-high reward venture. It catapults otherwise obscure characters to the forefront of media publicity and boosts floundering careers. Purveyors of ill-will gain a larger-than-life image and the halo of someone who can stand up to entrenched interests, unmindful of the consequences.  

Distressing though it might seem, paradoxically, plummeting standards of public dialogue betoken the success of Indian democracy in some respects. With the disintegration of the Congress, new political players have emerged in all states. They chiefly comprise people whom the Congress ignored. These new actors might seem callow and uncultured as they grapple with the logic of electoral democracy. Yet, undeniably, politics today is more riveting than the earlier epoch of Congress domination. The maladroit manners of the ‘masses’ is a small price for building an inclusive, vibrant polity. Though reassuring, this happy reading, while true in one sense, masks more ominous occurrences at a subterranean level.

Three developments are noteworthy. First, even with the expansion of the political arena and the forcible entry of hitherto excluded groups, Indian democracy is ambivalent about inclusion. Its unwillingness to accommodate new faces and accord them dignity has partly precipitated the demise of decency in public life. Restless entrants in politics feel stymied. Barring some, the vast majority of new players stagnate on the periphery, seething in resentment.

Feudal and ossified, political parties are reluctant to embrace democratic practices. There is no inner-party democracy in any party. Parties have dodged eroding legitimacy and won elections by chiefly relying on three types of members: dynasts, stars, and money bags. All political parties, except Communists, prefer to field the scions of senior party members, partly because, as tested commodities, their loyalty is assured. Parliament members Sukhbir Badal, Karti Chidambaram, Misa Bharati, BY Raghavendra —descendants of prominent leaders —are examples of this trend. Their numbers are legion.

Political parties also court film stars, sports icons and media celebrities. With their proven popularity, these luminaries leverage popular goodwill and win elections. Thus, party bosses capitalize on the glamour of Bollywood stars and the fame of sportspersons. Wealthy business tycoons willing to invest their considerable resources for the party are the other sought-after group. Thus, ordinary grassroots party workers who slog hard to build the party find themselves sidelined by people who have earned their spurs in other fields or those who have inherited a legacy. Frustrated, they are desperate to stand out and be noticed by party leaders. For some of them, belittling speech is an easy option. In a winner-take-all system, the resulting infamy is acceptable than insignificance.

Second, a major impetus for offensive speech comes from party bosses who tacitly encourage such behaviour and reward habitual offenders. Dilip Ghosh, a nameless party worker from a modest background, became a BJP legislator by lashing out at people in foul language. Party bosses abet sulfurous speech because it enables the party to concretize its ties with hardcore supporters and fence-sitters. Besides, by outsourcing this task, they can remain unsullied. Rude and repulsive language also discourages decent, independent-minded professionals who think critically about entering politics. 

Third, inflammatory utterances are priceless in deflecting popular attention from predatory economic policies. With the relentless march of neoliberalism, politics is under the vice-like grip of big business. Economic policies are pre-determined and ‘accumulation through dispossession’ is non-negotiable. Such is the might of transnational capital that it has eviscerated politics of its content globally. Politicians can survive only as agents of global capital. As powerful interests denude politics of its mandate, there is little room for genuine debate and discussions. Party bigwigs, thus, have the unenviable task of managing expectations and retaining legitimacy while furthering the corporate agenda. With limited ability to manoeuvre and fulfil popular demands, all parties have developed the ‘high command’ culture: they prefer to operate through their factotums and sycophants. Gaining entry into these rarified circles is virtually impossible. Only bearers of material, symbolic, or populist resources can gain patronage. In this scenario, the ordinary party worker has few alternatives to rise through the ranks. This explains the attraction of diversionary tactics like rabble-rousing and demonizing critics and minorities.

Whatever the compulsions, the victims of vituperative statements suffer in silence. Mainly tokenistic, laws against hate-mongering are rarely invoked. The perfunctory attitude of the government and the inefficiencies of the justice system together ensure that culprits don’t incur penalties. The upshot is that with every disparaging remark, targeted groups feel more estranged. Repeated calumny strips them of their humanity. It violates their dignity and quest for recognition.

Hate-mongering as a mode of doing politics flourishes because there is a high degree of popular tolerance for such conduct. The lethal combination of low levels of human development, a widely shared sense of victimhood, and an anaemic education system that does not emphasize democratic values vitiates social relations. Reversing this trend calls for enlightened statesmanship. It requires transcending petty electoral calculations, fostering human capabilities, and reinstating constitutionally guaranteed human dignity. With ‘Bonsai people’ at the helm, this will not happen soon.

(The writer is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Asian Studies at Kettering University in Flint, Michigan, US)  

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