The seamy side of the great Indian democracy

Ashis Biswas, Kolkata
Published : 07:30, Apr 21, 2019 | Updated : 07:30, Apr 21, 2019

A man rides past the torn poster of Prime Minister Narendra Modi before Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rally at Mohanpur village in Paschim Medinipur district, February 6, 2019. REUTERS/File PhotoFor some years it has been standard behaviour for Indian politicians of all hues to adopt a lofty, Olympian approach towards their practicing colleagues in other countries: rarely do they spare any opportunity of reminding everyone that India is the, freest, largest functioning democracy in the world.
Such fulsome self-praise may be factually correct, never mind the lack of subtlety or good taste of the great Indian political class. But certain features of the on-going political campaign for the Indian Lok Sabha elections 2019 have forced most analysts to wonder: Are size and big numbers the only things that matter in politics? What of the major issues that concern the people, the values and ethics that should determine political functioning and governance, the setting of time- bound targets to ensure economic development?
The sad truth is, if the vicious political slanging matches heard during run-up to India’s 2019 General Elections are ever analysed, most observers would be shocked to find that the discourse has been dominated by staggering instances of alleged/proved corruption, rampant communalism and abusive language in the garb of ‘reasoning’, added to instances of mob violence (in Bengal, for instance). The media too has been sharply polarised into two hostile camps. Objective election coverage has taken a backseat.
The outcome of such a hate- dominated campaign has been an appalling decline of standards of political behaviour to the levels of rustic village brawls in the interior villages of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan or the dacoit-infested parts of Madhya Pradesh.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP)members had gone overboard in their drive to humiliate the much reduced Indian National Congress(only 44 seats in the 543 strong Lok Sabha in 2014, which later increased to 52) by calling its young President Rahul Gandhi’Pappu.’ This is clearly an instance of contemptuous name calling, Pappu being akin to ‘Potla’or ‘Jagai’ in Bengali (by way of comparison.) The ball was set rolling.
The tactic succeeded for a while. However, as the immediate effects of demonetisation and the imposition of GST rules were felt, the situation soured for the BJP. To his credit, after much initial faltering, Gandhi found his feet and started hitting back. He held rallies, met people, shook hands, visited mosques and temples. Scandalous details of corruption involving men like Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi and allegations of foul play in the Rafale fighter jets purchase deal surfaced.
Gandhi lost no time in calling Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who claimed to be the ‘Chowkidar’ of the people in 2019, (he had made much of his past as a ‘chaiwala’, a seller of tea in 2014), as ‘chor’.
So, ‘Chowkidar chor hai’, the guard is a thief, became the INC slogan for the 2019 national elections …what a sad commentary for India, a culturally rich diverse country of 1.2 billion people! However, even as most people shook their heads gravely over the slogan, it could not be denied that for Rahul Gandhi, there was something personal about the matter. His father Rajiv, India’s Prime Minister from 1984 to 1989 had also been called a ‘chor’ without benefit of evidence, during the 1988-89 campaign against the Bofors gun purchase in India, by a united opposition.
It eventually led to Rajiv Gandhi’s defeat in the LS polls of 1989! As Rahul’s new war cry resonated among some voters in South Indian states, which have never really accepted either the broadly North Indian BJP or its leaders, he began licking his chops , figuratively speaking. More ominously for the BJP, the national economy did not show any signs of improvement. Suddenly more and more people seemed to attend Rahul’s rallies.
The BJP’s defeat in the assembly elections of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh to the INC also clearly pointed to peoples’ disillusionment. ‘Pappu’ now had to be taken seriously, as even Modi, perhaps India’s best political orator, began exerting himself more strenuously into the ongoing campaign.
As with most negative behavioural trends, once the floodgates open and restraint is thrown overboard, all limits of decency disappear. Thus Mamata Banerjee consistently describes Mr Modi as ‘Haridas’, ‘Modibabu,’ ‘Modibaba’ , ‘Dangababu’ or ‘Dakat’ without showing the slightest restraint. Worse her loyal followers use even worse expressions, as they outdo each other heartily abuse the nation’s prime Minister and the highest office he holds. Young, barely literate party supporters in Bengal wildly cheer and applaud local TMC stalwarts as they pile on the insults on their opponents. To put the record straight, Modi in turn has never referred to Mamata Banerjee, as anything other than ‘Didi’!
The nadir for making four speeches had been reached in Trinamool-ruled Bengal earlier than elsewhere. Here at Nadia, at a public meeting Trinamool MP Tapas Paul had threatened to send rapists to homes of opposition supporters, unless they changed their ways, some time back. Anubrata Mondal Trinamool President of Birbhum had asked his ‘boys’ to bomb policemen who tried to interfere with them in any way, at a public rally. Despite much outcry and public, Mamata Banerjee had not uttered a word in condemnation of her followers.
Elsewhere too things are hardly much better. The seasoned leader N.C. Pawar in Maharashtra has ridiculed Modi for not having been a family man and therefore being naturally unable to understand the problems of common people leading normal lives. Mamata Banerjee described BJP leader Kailash Vijaybargia as ‘looking like a scary criminal.’
As for being communal, leaders have excelled themselves. INC leader Navjyot Singh Siddhu has appealed to Muslims to vote in a bloc against the BJP and hit Modi out of the country for a six! Ms Mayabati had made a similar appeal to Muslims in Uttar Pradesh a few days ago, asking them not to divide the anti-BJP votes. For the BJP, Mrs. Maneka Gandhi has threatened voters that if Muslims did not vote for her, they should not approach her for any help later on, if she wins! In Bengal masjid Imams have been recorded as asking Muslims to vote for Trinamool and the Left parties to oust the BJP, in public gatherings.
‘Truly, the pre-poll atmosphere in India as it goes into the general elections of 2019, is suffocating, with not much silver lining for the people in sight… it was not like this earlier,’ says Kolkata-based economist Shounak Mukherjee.
It seems most Indians are well aware that the sheer size of India’s democracy, where nearly 900 million people will vote in seven phases to elect their rulers, is no guarantee of either its robust health or the high quality of the governance they will get.
There will be more coverage of issues relating to corruption in India’s pre-election campaign in 2019 another time.