Calling A Spade An Axe

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Mar 25 2004, 05:30am hrs
It is now a self-evident conviction in India that there has been a precipitous decline in political conduct, leading to personal attacks, vicious mud-slinging and an ugly war of words. This appears to have reached a new level of indecorum in recent days, with the Congress and the BJP constantly finding new lows. All this has resulted in a cry of anguish from many op-ed writers and thinkers. However, the phenomenon is neither new nor restricted to India. The surprise is that anybody is still surprised.

The world over, politics is getting increasingly malicious. In Venezuela, opponents routinely call the president a madman, and that too in the parliament. In UK, anti-war activists have no compunctions about calling Tony Blair a poodle or a liar. In the US, the bitterly contested 2000 elections led to accusations of vote-rigging, mob-rule, fraud and even calling the other team thugs. Now, four years later, the after-effects of that polarising event have only magnified, with Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry describing his Republican critics as the most crooked and lying group Ive ever seen.

On the other side, Ann Coulter, one of Americas most well-known columnists and the darling of the neo-cons, routinely trashes even the most venerable Democratic leader with the vilest language. And during the Iraq war last year, The Sun newspaper of UK branded President Jacques Chirac as Saddam Husseins whore.

Back home, at least in recent times, it is the Bal Thackerays, Narendra Modis and Praveen Togadias of the world who have entered this hallowed hall of shame with their virulent outbursts, with Modi describing relief camps sheltering riot-victims as child-making factories and referring to Sonia Gandhi as gori chamri wali. But all major political groups, including the Congress, BJP and the assortment of Left parties, are guilty of lowering the level of public debate over the years, to the point where unsubstantiated charges and outright demonisation have become the norm.

In fact, neither is the BJP alone in this reprehensible trend, nor is it the one to throw the first stone. If you go back 10 or even 15 years, Leftist parties and their acolytes in the press commonly flayed the evil forces represented by the Sangh parivar. Jyoti Basu once called the BJP barbaric and uncivilised and the leaders of his party refused to attend the swearing of Vajpayee in 1998.

In the public domain, there must be hundreds of references by the secular camp of calling the BJP and the RSS either Fascists, Nazis, hate-mongers or even killers. The terms genocide and ethnic cleansing were used frequently and perhaps mindlessly after the Gujarat riots by a number of people. Do these people realise the full import of such strong accusatory language

While no one has really kept above the fray, in one way the real culprit could well be the media. At least in India, there is hardly any scrutiny on our media stars who with great impunity embellish facts and also take a gratuitous delight in provoking outrageous soundbites out of interviewees. Our over-stimulated democracy has somehow created a media market for subsidised sanctimony, shrill exaggerations and gross inaccuracies. Just check it out next time on TV; even in a slow news week, far away from any election, one can routinely hear words and phrases like opportunistic alliances, destroying the country, plundering national wealth...

In a truly great article some time back, SL Rao, well-known economist, human rights activists and founder of PUCL, commented that while he detested the intolerance and lack of civility of the BJPs sister organisations, in recent years, a new breed of aggressive, arrogant, and opinionated reporters, especially from television, unscrupulous politicians and some leftist intellectuals have combined to portray a remarkably uni-dimensional view of events. This hypocrisy about what is secular, fundamentalist and liberal has polarised Indian society.

The exponential growth of Indian media has created a commentariat class and in a sense made columnists and editors into a new kind of party unto themselves. It has also led to a dilution even abandonment of experience, maturity, sensitivity and informed opinion. All in all, there is far greater occurrence of being maligned or labelled today than in the past. TV is especially a very dangerous medium for a country as divided and with such diverse worldviews as India; if nothing else, there is that irresistible temptation to go for the one-two punch against your opponents, even if it not backed by facts. Being vague but trenchant works wonders in rallying the troops or in getting attention.

In a democracy, political success easily gets translated into intellectual validation. Similarly, in the media, TV ratings and newsprint circulation is mentally equated with a success that only the bold and fearless deserve. Both are deceptive delusions.

The author is an analyst of Indian political and business trends and the editor of India Focus, a political risk report for international investors