Negative campaigning in elections isn’t new. This is not even considered evil by the voters. The opposition is duty-bound to question the ruling party’s performance and ideology, and governments will invariably confront the challengers, generating negativity in the discourse. But criticism and counter-arguments are integral components of democracy. The problem arises when campaigns are designed to mislead voters, inflame passions and trigger communal polarisation. The problem is compounded when the level of discourse falls abysmally low, lumpenising public space. Not only pedestrian foot soldiers, even top leaders are often seen nowadays indulging in crass and abusive discourse, which should be cause for serious concern to the citizens, as well as the political class.
Who will the ordinary citizens look up to for upholding constitutional morality and civility if the Prime Minister and chief ministers wantonly and deliberately resort to vulgar sniping, false and deceitful propaganda? Those who hold constitutional posts have greater responsibility for setting high standards of communication in public life. Even opposition leaders cannot be appreciated for unwarranted calumny and personal insinuations. Top leaders of every party need to honestly assess the social consequences of their behaviour and decide whether or not electoral discourse should reflect healthy politics and true democratic spirit. Elections do not grant the licence to be irresponsible; partisan political warfare takes place in the same universe where people of every caste, religion and social strata are supposed to coexist peacefully and refine civilisational ethos.
What we see is a dangerous trend. Not even speeches, even media advertisements are incendiary in tenor and content. The objective is to whip up communal passions, to polarise voters on religious lines and reap the dividends of a vitiated atmosphere. This is not the kind of democratic growth we prayed for. The discourse must become more humane, more meaningful, more civilised, more factual. Principles of accountability and commitment to a decent public life must get reflected in electioneering. Societies and people have to exist after elections. The fissures will impact normal life which includes social harmony, governance and business. Vulgarism takes varied forms; from dog-whistle politics to brazen violation of constitutional values of equality and justice.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath repeatedly invoking symbols of communal divide has crossed the limits of impropriety. Everybody knows India will be run by the Constitution, not Shariat law. Everybody knows what Ali-Bajrang Bali means. Everybody knows why riots are being recalled in western Uttar Pradesh. Prime Minister Narendra Modi added fuel to fire by endorsing this toxic rhetoric. He too branded the Samajwadi Party as promoters of ‘gunda raj’. His statements – for instance, red cap is red alert – are in bad taste. He did the same in Bihar by portraying the Yadavs as unlawful creatures who will usher in ‘gunda raj’. Vilifying a community is undesirable. Home Minister Amit Shah also deploys such tricks with gay abandon. If lesser mortals violate the model code of conduct, top leaders should conduct themselves in a manner that restores public confidence in the healthy democratic processes. If the Prime Minister doesn’t symbolise exemplary social behaviour, society is doomed. The Prime Minister is expected to be the embodiment of constitutional morality. He cannot say troublemakers can be identified by clothes. He cannot sing the ‘shamshaan-kabristan’ tune. He has to be the calming voice that reflects the majesty of constitutional values. If the Prime Minister doesn’t wake up and make amends, others won’t get the message for course correction. Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma demonstrated how low politicians could stoop when he heaped insult on Sonia Gandhi by questioning the parentage of Rahul Gandhi.
The political class in its entirety, the intelligentsia and the media should collectively ponder the falling standards of discourse, the bitterness in society and the long-term ill-effects of toxic politics. All these combine to not only give India a bad image, but also erode the credibility of our democracy. Leaders need to show the foresight of anticipating where this downhill journey will climax. Even the opposition leaders must cooperate and ensure that criticism of governments does not acquire the form of personal defamation. There are countless examples of indecent behaviour by key opposition leaders, targeting ministers personally and below the belt. This trend has continued for decades and worsened in the last few years. Politicians of all hues should agree on a constructive agenda to improve public discourse. After all, it is not merely about language and style. It is about substance and purpose as well.