Wednesday, Dec 19, 2018 | Last Update : 03:43 PM IST

Low Roads to Legislatures: Democracy’s global recession

Amitabh Singh is an associate professor, School of International Studies, JNU
Published : Dec 2, 2018, 12:10 am IST
Updated : Dec 2, 2018, 4:58 am IST

Modi went on to say in an election rally that the constitutional provision of impeachment is being used to intimidate judges of the apex court.

 Poll campaigning that has evolved over the centuries focuses on civic engagement through political discourse; issues that need to be highlighted; and reconfirming the choices of voters based on their political awareness, likes and dislikes.
  Poll campaigning that has evolved over the centuries focuses on civic engagement through political discourse; issues that need to be highlighted; and reconfirming the choices of voters based on their political awareness, likes and dislikes.

Elections in India evoke descriptions like ‘festival’ or ‘carnival,’ in part due to the overwhelming numbers that participate in the process. In this country of over a billion people, approximately 80 crore voters will decide who rules the world’s largest democracy for the next five years in 2019. As the two main Opposition parties prepare to square off for the state Assembly elections, the results of which are to be declared on December 11, the long-term result would be the blood sport of a new low in electoral rhetoric beamed to Indian middle-class living rooms via television.

Old convention and nic-eties of Indian political rhetoric have been given a go by. At times, political rivals bear closer resemblance to enemies rather than opponents. “Maut ka saudagar”, “neech aadmi” and “chaiwallah” are epithets that have been used against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Similarly, Congress leader Sonia Gandhi was likened to a “Jersey cow”, while Rahul Gandhi was termed a “hybrid child” and  former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, of all people, a Pakistani agent.

Mr Modi went on to say in an election rally that the constitutional provision of impeachment is being used to intimidate judges of the apex court.  The nadir of this rhetoric was when the irrigation minister of Telangana and nephew of Tel-angana Rashtra Samithi chief K. Chandrashekhar R-ao, T. Harish Rao, during an election speech, said that he would cut off the tongue of Revuri Ramesh from the Telugu Desam Party. “As a last ditch effort, they are resorting to cheap tricks. If you continue sp-eaking like this, I will cut off your tongue, let me wa-rn you,” Harish Rao had said.

All of these remarks are a violation of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC). The MCC guidelines, as per the Election Commission of India, say, “Criticism of other political parties, when made, shall be confined to their policies and programme, past record and record and work. Parties and candidates shall refrain from criticism of all aspects of private life, not connected with the public activities of private life, not connected with public activities of the leaders or workers of other parties. Criticism of other parties or their workers based on unverified allegations or distortion shall be avoided.

BBC journalist Mark Thompson in his book Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics? laments the falling level of language used in election debates the world over. Among his conclusions is that “rhetorical rationalism” is now under sustained attack and is failing, in crucial instances, to convince a public no longer prepared to grant it automatic respect in the rhetoric used in the election campaigns. In India, this seems all the more true.

Poll campaigning that has evolved over the centuries focuses on civic engagement through political discourse; issues that need to be highlighted; and reconfirming the choices of voters based on their political awareness, likes and dislikes.

In India what has happened of late, and especially after 1984 elections, is that elections and civic engagements have revolved around emotive issues, and all other agendas have taken a backseat. One can regret Indian election campaign tend to focus exclusively on the vote, which certainly is a climactic moment of the electoral process, but by no means the only interesting one, and the issue that needs to be highlighted has lost its focus. All measures are taken to be fair or unfair to influence the outcome of the elections. The inducement can vary from evoking caste or communal solidarity to distributing cash and liquor before elections. The level of political debate that happens is reflective of this understanding.

Politicians across the spectrum have taken recourse to polemics and jargon besides casting aspersions on the character, conduct and morality of opponents.

The elections are seen by most of political parties as the only democratic exercise that can be undertaken and seldom is an effort made by them to reach out to voters after that, and this is the main cause of the vitiation of the electoral process. Historian Ramachandra Guha, in his book India after Gandhi, argues the country is only “50 per cent a democracy”, holding viable elections, but falling short when it comes to “the functioning of politicians and political institutions.”

The time has now come for the Indian political system to take a call on the level of debates reinforced by effective laws and a proactive Election Commission, which acts on violation of the MCC in a free and imp-artial manner. The judiciary should also come down heavily on violations and must also take suo moto cognisance of the use of intemperate language during poll campaigns.

Tags: democracy, rahul gandhi