Ugly, violent, decadent

Words, gestures and our politics

Bhopal: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP National President Amit Shah (R) wave at their supporters during BJP 'Karyakarta Mahakumbh', in Bhopal, Tuesday, Sept 25, 2018. (PTI Photo) (PTI9_25_2018_000094B)

What do Congress and Pakistan have in common? They are both frustrated and aim to somehow remove Modiji from Indian polity
Sambit Patra.

Hang me if idols are not found under Delhi’s Jama Masjid
Sakshi Maharaj.

Abuse, personal attacks and communally charged filthy words are the new normal in Indian politics. As ‘spokespersons’ of political parties make television news noisy, we experience the death of civility, enriched ideological debate and the art of dignified dissent. Possibly, this very longing may be ridiculed as a daydream in a toxic age in which lies are regarded as truths, civility as weakness, and narcissism as statesmanship.

The question is why this insanity is all-pervading. A possible reason is the meaning ‘professional politicians’ attach to politics. Far from seeing it as a meticulously thought-out worldview with penetrating reflections on the practice of power, the distribution of wealth and life-sustaining projects of social transformation, they transform it into a crudely utilitarian pursuit: a manipulative strategy to activate the gross emotions of the masses (say, the temple at Ayodhya for restoring ‘lost Hindu pride’) and win elections at any cost. Politics of this kind abhors critical thinking, reflexive education, and sensitivity to the depths of cultural pluralism. As a result, educating a cadre, motivating him/her to learn diverse philosophies of governance, nationhood and economy, and cultivating the nuanced art of conversation with opponents -- these components of political education are ruthlessly denied. Politics loses the spirit of critical enquiry and liberating education. 

The poverty of intellectual imagination, it seems, is inseparable from the prevalent politics. Rhetoric replaces the substance (think of Narendra Modi’s yet another laughable outburst: “Farmers would not have been ruined had Sardar Patel been India’s first PM”), and the taboo on deep thinking is allowed to normalise the violence of gestures.

Moreover, as a mix of authoritarian personality, narcissistic cult, despiritualised religion and militant nationalism characterise the dominant political discourse, what is bound to disappear is humility and the ethics of listening. For instance, it is the brute manifestation of power that we see in the words the ruling forces often use to degrade, diminish and humiliate opponents. Words become toxic and violent (recall Amit Shah’s fiery speech in Kerala over the Sabrimala controversy). Neither BJP nor Congress can resist these temptations. And for the noisy television channels in the age of instantaneity and depthlessness, nasty verbal fights and offensive body language — if sanctified by the ‘stardom’ of the ‘republic-friendly’ anchors — do good business.

And all these spokespersons — superficially smart, intellectually impoverished and ethically repugnant -- become mere ‘performers’. Be it Rafale or Bofors, Ayodhya or Kashmir, demonetisation or GST, RBI or CBI -- they would read a predictable script, accuse one another (you speak of Gujarat, I’ll remind you of Delhi riots), and divert from the real issue. With this manipulated media, there is no communication; the ‘panel discussion’ is merely a fight between two boxers. Democracy degenerates into a tragic as well as comic show -- like the Bigg Boss television spectacle! 

Was it better in the past? Well, bitterness and toxic words were not uncommon even in those days when the likes of Ramaswamy Periyar and Ambedkar critiqued Mahatma Gandhi. Though they were well read and ideologically rooted, their words were by no means sweeter; they abused, hated and debunked. However, it was not altogether impossible to find the art of nuanced critique and dignified contestation. For instance, a careful reader of Nehru’s Autobiography would concede that, despite his proximity to Gandhi, he evolved a philosophic critique of the postulates that the Mahatma proposed in his Hind Swaraj. And the relationship between Gandhi and Tagore: they differed on many issues -- say, on swadeshi and non-cooperation, yet they trusted each other.

 I recall this civility because democracy -- I mean democracy as a mode of living, thinking and associating with fellow citizens -- requires this. With the massification of electoral politics, as it is argued by many, Indian politics is becoming free from select English-educated elites (a tea vendor, we are repeatedly reminded, can become prime minister). And, as a result, a new vocabulary emerges that, to use the ‘subaltern’ theorization, defies ‘bourgeois civility’ and becomes ‘earthy’. In Mayawati’s or Lalu Prasad’s language, you do not find the traces of what ‘elitist’ Nehru wrote in The Glimpses of World History. Nor do you find it in Yogi Adityanath or Mamata Banerjee. But then, the point is that liberating politics is also endowed with a historic challenge -- to elevate the ‘popular’ to a finer level of intellectual argumentation. Otherwise, in the name of the ‘popular’, we may end up legitimizing the utterly gross manifesto or a dictionary of abuses in which the Sakshi Maharajs of Indian politics engage so shamelessly.

I must say that the Sambit Patras (representing all that the arrogance of power can do to a person) of our times cannot be seen in isolation from us -- our collective degeneration, our love of gossip, sensation and negativity, and our intoxication with the social media that cherishes only what is ‘viral’. In a culture in which filthy music, melodramatic ‘performance’ by self-obsessed political bosses, and the hollowness of television anchors envelop our existence, and everything becomes a matter of instant consumption, it is difficult to expect a truly vibrant, ethically sound and ideologically enriched political debate. In a way, we deserve what we get. No change is possible without our inner transformation and active participation in a different kind of politics -- a politics of hope and new possibilities. Twitter and Facebook, believe me, cannot accomplish this task on our behalf.

(Avijit Pathak is Professor of Sociology at JNU)     

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