January 26, 2021
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Plumbing The Depths

"We have a "Shikhandi" sitting in the Prime Minister's chair today." To hear a senior political leader speaking publicly in this vein is offensive to all right-thinking people in this country.

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Plumbing The Depths

In all our years of freedom, the national political debate has never degenerated to the levels to which it has now collapsed, with former Foreign Affairs and Finance Minister, Yashwant Sinha plumbing the depths with the statement, "We have a "Shikhandi" sitting in the Prime Minister's chair today."

Never before has such invective been employed in even the most bitter disputes at this level of politics, and as a former senior minister and a one-time officer of the Indian Administrative Service, Mr Sinha should have been better acquainted with the common limits of propriety and decorum. To hear a senior political leader speaking publicly in this vein is offensive to all right-thinking people in this country. Even Indian caricaturists recognise and observe the boundaries of constructive satire and do not resort to such name-calling. It has never been my practice, in my writings, to dwell on the conduct of or statements by specific individuals, and I have sought consistently to focus on issues of significance for the nation. The present instance, however, has too far transgressed the bounds of acceptable political discourse to be ignored.

Mr Sinha's choice of invective is also surprising, particularly from a member of a party and a former regime that is not particularly distinguished for its "manliness". An examination of the record of the NDA Government does not reveal acts of particular masculinity, and few in this country have forgotten the disgrace of IC 814 and the spectacle of the then Minister of External Affairs walking hand in hand at Kandahar, with members of the despised Taliban regime, which the then Indian Government was well aware was collaborating with the hijackers and their ISI backers. There is continuous and cumulative evidence of the disastrous consequences of that capitulation, and its impact is still being felt, not only in India, but well beyond, in patterns of Islamist extremist terror in different theatres across the world. The truth is, on the issue of terrorism, among others, the last Government was almost consistently spineless.

The choice of invective is also incomprehensible - beyond its crude imputation on gender - and displays a complete lack of familiarity with the characters of the Mahabharata, and the symbolism of their conduct. Coming from a member of a party that swears by "Hindutva" and "cultural nationalism" such ignorance is itself a disgrace which goes well beyond the coarse quality of abusiveness that Sinha's statement displays, and which itself shows little evidence of any kind of "culture".

The occasion for Sinha's personal attack on Manmohan Singh is the theatre of the absurd that surrounds the abrupt and bizarre revival of the "flag hoisting" case against Uma Bharati in a court at Hubli, and allegations against the Congress of a "misuse of the judiciary" for "political ends". But the exploitation of the judiciary for political ends is hardly the exclusive province of a single political party, and this appaling sequence commenced with that strange judgement against Indira Gandhi, which overturned an electoral verdict on a hyper-technicality. The country is still paying for that insult to the woman who was once described even by her detractors in the Opposition - later to become eminent leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party - as Durga Mata, and by others as "the only man in India's Parliament". Since then, the judiciary has regularly, and often eagerly, lent itself to exploitation by politicians, and the Hubli case is hardly the only one in which judicial processes are currently being manipulated in the country for partisan political ends.

The outcome of the last general election has, unfortunately, unleashed a pattern of desperation that bodes great danger for the country's future. A leadership style of disruptive incompetence has become increasingly central to the national political discourse, and this fractious politics is a grave danger to us all, and to India's future. This rancorous politics can consume and destroy the great economic miracle we are all dreaming of. This is a fractured country with deep and historical divisions, and the current trend in politics is exacerbating these. Against those who seek to divide communities on caste and religious lines, there is no authentically liberal, secular and democratic ideological formation - and, regrettably, even those who pretend to such values have shown no inclination to avoid exploiting a deeply divisive politics by repeatedly reigniting debates over reservations, by developing and manipulating communal "vote banks", and by constantly diverting national attention from the mounting multiplicity of national crises that afflict us.

While no single factor or political formation can, consequently, be exclusively charged with pushing the nation towards danger, it is, nevertheless the case that the BJP has failed altogether to come to terms with its humiliation in the last elections, and its loss of power, not only at the Centre, but also in some of the states it regarded as its "success stories". Despite the short-term electoral "benefits", the BJP should have realised that its handling of Godhra and the Gujarat riots would, eventually, recoil on the party's political future and legitimacy in the eyes of a country and culture that naturally reject extremes - though they may, from time to time, be momentarily seduced by them. The BJP, however, has displayed a singular lack of foresight, both in and, now, out of power, and has clearly failed to understand the essentials of governance and popular legitimacy.

Across the world, today, we are witness to the almost daily horror of political violence and terrorism. In India itself, the sphere of extremist violence, of lawlessness and of political disorder has expanded continuously over the past decades, and the legitimacy and authority of the state and of the institutions and processes of democracy, is everywhere being questioned. The incessant pandemonium and misbehaviour in Parliament, the unending scandals of governance, the graceless spectacles of senior former ministers scuffling with the police while courting arrest, or queuing up - slippers in hand - to beat up effigies of current ministers, and the general deterioration of public discourse, cannot secure the political coherence and focus that this country needs if it is to capitalise on the opportunities of the transforming world order and its own significant competitive advantages.

Unconstrained invective and earthy abuse has long established itself in the politics of certain states in this country, including Mr Sinha's home state, and political violence and a culture of lawlessness and chaos have never been far behind. There is now increasing evidence that this ruinous politics is gravitating, gradually but systematically, towards the national stage, and the role of criminality and violence is more and more visible at Delhi. A single weak link can break the chain that holds the mightiest of nations together, and there are far too many weak links in India' chain of political integration, even as there are numerous forces, both within and outside the country, eager to exploit these vulnerabilities.

India's political parties - without exception - are leading this country along several pathways of self-destruction, and it is high time they collectively realised that some limits must be set to what can and cannot pass for "legitimate" political discourse and activity, and must exclude the more ruinous patterns of electoral and political mobilisation that have now taken root in the national political culture.

K. P.S. Gill is Publisher, SAIR; President, Institute for Conflict Management. This article was originally published in The Pioneer.

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