The Taste with Vir: The coarsening of political discourse

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It is almost a truism that political discourse in India has hit a new low. You don’t need much to persuade you. Just switch on the TV, go to any “news” channel and watch party spokesmen scream, shout and abuse each other.

The coarsening of the discourse is a phenomenon of the last ten years. There were always politicians who would cross the line but they were the exceptions not the rule. Often their words were couched in attempts at humour. When I edited Sunday magazine and Mani Shankar Aiyar was a columnist, he would regularly take on LK Advani who was then at the zenith of his power.

Aiyar’s strategy (in those days) was to ridicule rather than abuse. So Advani, who posed as a common man driven to anger by the injustices heaped upon Hindus, was always referred to as Uncle Walrus, a reference to both his moustache and his attempt to portray himself as an avuncular figure.

Oddly enough, though other columnists regularly attacked Advani with more vigour, this was the nickname that got his goat. Various emissaries were sent to me to ask me to either persuade Aiyar to hold back or to censor his column.

A certain amount of invective is usually a part of political discourse everywhere. But it only works if it is backed up by policies or ideology and stops short of outright, pointless abuse.

In the US, Donald Trump routinely abuses opponents (and various former administration officials who have turned against him) on Twitter and other public platforms. No US President in history has ever behaved so crassly and all the polls suggest that the tactics are backfiring on Trump.

In India, the BJP IT cell learned long ago that ridicule is more effective than outright attacks. It has spent nearly ten years plugging away at the theme that Rahul Gandhi is a joker, a figure of fun, a ‘pappu’ who cannot possibly be taken seriously, let alone entrusted with any responsibility. Even Subramanium Swamy, who routinely portrays Sonia Gandhi as an agent of evil sent to Earth by Satan, dismisses Rahul as “buddhu”.

Of course the ridicule is unfair and not based on fact. But the truth is that the Sangh Parivar has done such an effective job of belittling Rahul that everywhere you go, even apolitical people who have no knowledge of what Rahul is really like, will assume that he is a duffer.

In recent years, the BJP has followed a two-pronged strategy. The Prime Minister (who once said, while he was Chief Minister of Gujarat, that Rahul would find it hard to get a job as a driver) now adopts a lofty tone and rarely attacks or abuses his enemies. His minions, however, keep up the attacks.

The Congress has struggled for years to work out how to counter this strategy and to handle this level of discourse, especially on TV debates. It tried attacking Narendra Modi directly many years ago, during a campaign for the Gujarat assembly, when Sonia Gandhi went for the jugular. When that yielded no returns, she abandoned that approach and has been more reasoned in her rhetoric.

Rahul, however, has been much more direct. At the last General Election, he would encourage crowds to chant “Chowkidar Chor Hai” at rallies. The chanting went well. The election did not. The Congress went down to one of its most humiliating defeats ever.

Since then the party has been engaged in a constant internal discussion about how best to oppose the government in an age when political discourse is at its lowest level.

Rahul seems to believe that the Congress’s election campaign would have worked if more leaders had joined him in attacking the Prime Minister’s personal integrity. At a post-mortem after the results, he berated Congress leaders for not joining in his ‘chor’ campaign. Most remained silent and only Amarinder Singh said that he did not believe that this was an effective tactic.

The issue is back on the forefront. At the last Congress Working Committee Meeting, a similar exchange took place One member questioned the wisdom of making personal attacks against the Prime Minister over the China issue. Rahul stuck to his position that direct attacks were necessary.

The Congress’s dilemma is that no matter what it does, polls suggest that Narendra Modi’s popularity is currently unassailable. There is little doubt (in my view) that the Covid lockdown was badly handled and it is as clear that the government has failed to effectively control the pandemic. Yet polls show that the vast majority of respondents believe that the Prime Minister handled all this very well.

So it is with China. It seems clear, that despite Narendra Modi’s efforts to develop a relationship with China, relations between India and China are at their lowest point in several decades. It is also clear that the government’s messaging on the clash in the Galwan valley is flawed. The PMO had to issue a hasty clarification on the Prime Minister’s remarks after the Chinese treated them as a vindication of their position.

A recent C-Voter-IANS survey showed that a majority of respondents believed that the China issue had been mishandled. But here’s the thing: the Prime Minister’s personal popularity was intact and a majority believed that the opposition would not have done a better job of handling the issue.

So how can the Opposition effectively attack a Prime Minster whose personal popularity is unaffected by the reverses his government suffers?

In this age of coarse political discourse, it may seem that calling Narendra Modi names is the only way to oppose the government.

But is it? We have been down this road before in the aftermath of demonetisation all the way to the last General Election.

Unfortunately for the Congress, the personal attacks did nothing to damage the Prime Minister’s popularity. It may be a tempting strategy for a demoralized opposition but in an age where political discourse is so cheapened, nobody pays much attention to the name calling any longer.

So, have diminishing returns set in now that we are at the height of the age of abuse?

I am beginning to think that they might have.

I suspect that the Congress gains less and less from the personal attacks it launches. Nor is there any benefit in sending spokespeople to TV debates where the anchors are already advocating an anti-Congress point of view.

Perhaps the answer is to go back to the old ways, to a gentler era when people discussed the issues without abuse.

When AB Vajpayee was Prime Minister, he never once said anything that was beneath the office of the PM nor did he allow his party to introduce filth into the discourse.

It’s worth remembering too that Sonia Gandhi rarely, if ever, launched any personal attacks on AB Vajpyaee. She restricted her criticism to the level of ideas, spotted the one chink in the BJP’s armour (the reforms had not reached those at the margins of our society) and consistently hammered away at it. Ultimately, despite lacking the stature, experience and oratory of Vajpayee, she beat him and led the Opposition to victory.

Narendra Modi is more popular than Vajpayee was. He also has a cult-like following among the faithful that Vajpayee lacked. To keep calling him names seems more and more pointless.

It is better surely, for the Congress to hammer away at the government’s policy failures rather than to turn this into a Rahul versus Modi battle given that Modi has decisively won two such battles before.Why attack the BJP at its strongest point (surveys suggest that Modi is more popular than his party) when you can more effectively question its record in government?

The problem with complaining about the level of political discourse and comparing it to the heyday of Vajpayee (let alone Jawaharlal Nehru) is that we need to accept that “news” channels and social media have changed the rules.

If you play their game, you end up like a mosquito repeatedly hurling its body against a marble statue. Far better surely to rise above that fray and to operate in an area where you have not already been written off.

The Congress should take inspiration from its election victories (as part of a coalition) in 2004 and 2009. It cast itself then as a party of good sense, not as the party of abuse.

There is now so much abuse all around us, such regular cheapening of the discourse and so much name calling that more and more people are getting tired of it. Voters realise that it is always easier to call someone names than it is to chip away at the issues.

Ultimately, common sense will reassert itself. People will get fed up of the shouting and the abuse. And when that happens, India will be a much cleaner and happier place.