Those who profess to serve the people, first need to rediscover civility, the backbone of any society Image Credit: Shutterstock

As politicians in India go, the bar is fluid. Just when you think, it can’t plummet another notch, someone comes and puts us in our place by generously showing how flawed our expectations are.

Himanta Biswa Sarma, the Assam Chief Minister is a family man, but in politics as on social media that is clearly no prerequisite for a public discourse.

“If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought,” said George Orwell in his book 1984. Sarma showed how he has taken Orwell’s words to heart, “did we ask for proof that you are Rajiv Gandhi’s son” he bent backwards to stoop low in response to allegations that Rahul Gandhi had asked for proof of the 2016 surgical strikes.

The Assam CM though is not the first to use such intemperate language as another election exposes the kind of unparliamentary words that could even put to shade a Donald Trump in his prime. The degenerating levels in every consecutive polls though are worn proudly and unashamedly while the sliding slope is now an avalanche burying sensibilities and sense.

Gaslighting in campaigns

Leaders, gaslight us even at election campaigns - the one time you would expect a little humility for votes and the only ones accountable for the development plank are those who are no longer alive to defend themselves.

Questioning the rising price of tomatoes or petrol are not considered constructive criticism, the engine of neo nationalism may be off track, but it more than runs and keeps adding more bogeys in the form of politicians who are allowed to measure their worth through decibels of provocation rather than answering questions on how last year’s education budget was underutilised by almost half.

But fools rush in where angels fear to tread- the voter is so conditioned to jargon that despite 75 million estimated to have fallen below the poverty line in the years of the pandemic, we now more than ever prefer to eat words rather than question joblessness.

It is tough to even pretend that truth has been a casualty of a success story, the changing tide of public discourse is not just that it celebrates shallow achievements but that it is also an attack on ideas. The relationship between Nehru and Patel is more of a concern than the fact that 60% of the global impact on the middle class during the pandemic was in India.

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One only has to look at Nehru’s great debates with his contemporaries and opponents to see how civil and polite political engagement in India once was Image Credit: Gulf News archives

“One only has to look at Nehru’s great debates with his contemporaries and opponents to see how civil and polite political engagement in India once was. Even in the rough and tumble of public politics, when furious debates ensued, politicians chose to engage with each other directly and civilly, without the malice and rancour we see today. The inability to speak directly to each other, and the use of below-the-belt punches to score points in public settings is causing the standards of public discourse to fall rapidly. Whether this can be arrested or not remains to be seen,” says Tripurdaman Singh co-author of the book Nehru: the Debates that Defined India.

Nuances of a debate

In modern politics what has also evolved is definition of a politician itself and without a reference to the nuances of a debate it is preferable to dismiss how a discourse among a group of intellectuals will forever set them apart.

In recent times Atal Bihari Vajpayee remains unmatched as an orator, he made us listen not by bringing others down but by lifting himself up. Even contentious issues were whitewashed with his wit and humour and despite being in the opposition benches he had more than a cordial relationship with Narasimha Rao, something that is unthinkable now.

Instead, dialogue itself within our political class is like the sun on a bleak winter day which is why images of Priyanka Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav acknowledging each other with respect on the campaign trail recently went viral.

Rest of the time personal is public, and oratory is missing the dignity of a post. The filth begins at the top and it is more than just about the passage of time. Has the voter dumbed down or has the political class got rid of all filters? Sample some gems from the 2022 election battleground.

Punjab Chief Minister Charanjit Channi sounded more like Navjot Sidhu saying “kale angrej (black foreigners) are trying to take over Punjab after chitte angrej (Britishers) were ousted from the country earlier,” his aim was at Kejriwal’s AAP.

Introspection from political class

Not to be left behind UP Chief Minister Adityanath has threatened Akhilesh Yadav with “garmi nikaal denge,” taking his low level of engagement even to social media which has single-handedly done to public discourse what saas- bahu dramas did to Indian television. Adityanath tweeted “suno Kejriwal”. The Delhi CM wasn’t going to be the bigger man, replying back, “suno Yogi.”

In December 2021, the Supreme Court of India took notice, “it is undoubtedly the debasement in the dialogue which is taking place which needs introspection from the political class across the country. In a country which prides itself on its diversity, there are bound to be different perceptions and opinions, which would include political opinions. That is the very essence of a democracy.” Nothing changed.

Instead, the blinkers allow for a new comfort zone- upmanship comes through crude, crass and unfiltered discourse. Many will prefer to stay with it because the right fight could reduce them to the margins. Earlier, campaigns at least promised us a vision for a better life, this era will be remembered for the semantics without the promises.

But what this unabashed and undignified public discourse hides is of more relevance — unemployment, health care, education disparity, nothing makes the cut.

Instead the past is now the present and referencing the Indian culture when the ease to question someone’s DNA is normalised is jarring. Those who profess to serve the people, first need to rediscover civility, the backbone of any society.