Will it be cleansing, or deform politics for some time to come?
This election, more than any other in recent memory, reminds one of George Bernard Shaw’s claim that elections are a “mud bath for every soul”. Passions are running high. In some places, there is violence to intimidate party enthusiasts, though by historical standards this violence is probably not high. There is an outbreak of the most vitriolic attacks words can conjure. The number of outrageous things said by various enthusiasts has reached proportions where outrage over outrageousness is exhausted. The question is: will this mud bath be cleansing? Is it a kind of ugly, but temporary, catharsis, occasioned by the election? Or will it continue to deform politics for some time to come?
There are several reasons why attacks in this election were bound to be more vicious. First, the stakes across the board are high. There is no doubt that there is going to be a great churning of India’s power structure, and great churnings are always accompanied by unusually high passions. The sense of vertigo that change induces often throws us off balance. It may be something of a tribute to Indian democracy that this passion is, for the most part, not violent. The one exception to this is Uttar Pradesh, where the atmosphere is beginning to get a little toxic. The after-effects of this polarisation will test the new government early on. The possibility of serious violence, whatever the causes, in UP cannot be ruled out. How a new government responds to soothe nerves and uphold the rule of law may determine its future prospects.
But in part, this election is vicious because it is arguably being fought on virtue. The BJP and AAP staked their positions on corruption, and the counterattack on the BJP has also come in the form of insinuations of corruption. But it is the nature of a campaign on the politics of corruption that it will be vicious. The reason is simple: this politics of corruption is taking place against the backdrop of a broader institutional failure to adjudicate these charges of corruption. There is at the moment, little legal truth to most charges and counter charges; a charge is true if you can make it appear true.
The logic of this politics is an extreme personalisation in a double sense. You have to impugn the credibility of those against whom you are making the charge. And your own claim to virtue becomes the basis of the credibility of a charge. A politics based purely on the discernment of motives and little else will be personal. continued…