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.
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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. In the absence of any institutional mediation, through courts, media, academia, this politics was bound to get viciously personal, and will remain so till these institutions are repaired. A decay in institutions will lead to a degradation of discourse. It is hard to imagine the recovery of generous sympathies without a revival of institutions.
This election is also marked by an unusual pressure for partisanship. But the partisanship is not the rough and tumble of disagreement and interest, the usual staples of politics. The partisanship is almost theological: to support the BJP is regarded as complicity with evil; to oppose the BJP is regarded as impugning the claims of the messiah. This partisanship is not a partisanship with a wink and a smile; it is a Manichean drama of innocence and villainy. Indian discourse is often temperamentally unsuited to the fact-value distinction, but in this election, the polarities of good and evil permeate all facts. Even facts have to be black and white: Gujarat has to be all good or all bad. Facts have to line up with political positions neatly. The slightest doubt that reality is not as neatly packaged as our moral intuitions is itself an act of betrayal. There is no distinction between analysis and positions. If facts are moralised all the way down, what is the reality that binds us?
This is also the first election since the rise of social media. Social media’s impact on politics is very much an open question; it is probably marginal. But it does have the appearance of being able to convert adversaries into enemies. Just as bad money drives out good, it is fair to say the most aggressive specimens in the social media zoo drown out the more sober ones. Social media’s ability to magnify the outrageous is probably greater than its ability to project the good. This is not just because there are organised armies on social media, targeting opponents as we would take out a foe.
It is for a more insidious reason: even the good love the chance to express outrage at the outrageous. The existence of bad statements is a way of affirming and claiming our own goodness; the more reactionaries we can show up, the more progressive and elevated we feel. Naming and shaming reactionaries can sometimes be a good thing. But sometimes publicity is the very oxygen that makes them thrive. Since we live in a world where getting serious adverse attention is better than getting no attention at all, the incentives are to magnify the sharpness of positions.
Finally, there are two kinds of campaign effects. First, no matter what leaders say, campaigns empower the worst kinds of followers. The general view is that leaders should discipline unruly friends to gain new ones. The truth of the matter is that in an election campaign, leaders rarely come down on their own friends’ misbehaviour. The moments of most intense partisanship empower the partisans: the meaning of partisanship is that even your bad supporters are better than the good enemies. Second, in this election, given its Manichean undertones, arguments instilling fear are beginning to abound. The campaign has polarised politics more than it has built bridges.
But will this kind of politics last beyond the election? And what will its consequences be? The fact of the matter is that whoever wins is not likely to get an overwhelming mandate; the best guess is the BJP will be heading a workable coalition. It is one thing to do business with your adversaries; it is another thing to go from the vocabulary of good and evil to the blander constructions of government and opposition. But the fact of the matter is, all parties will have to do that: a permanent state of Manichaeism is a recipe for disaster. The phrase “mud bath” is, of course, nicely ambiguous: it suggests being in a condition of muck, but one that is a prelude to a deeper cleansing. But if it turns out that there is all mud and no soul, Indian democracy will be in for a rough ride.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’