The partisan trap
Not only does it produce a vicious politics, it colonises everything else as well.
Democracies are susceptible to traps of their own making. One trap, much in discussion these days, is what David Runciman calls the “confidence trap”. Democracies seem to have hypochondria about their own lack of capacity for decision-making, particularly in international crises.
Autocratic governments seem to seize the initiative and do much better. Democracies seem to fumble. But this disadvantage turns out to be mostly illusory. Democracies may be bad getting into crises, but they are much better at getting out of them. Their dithering is more than compensated for by their flexibility. It is a very democratic thing to think that democracy is in crisis.
But there is another trap. This is the partisan trap. On one hand, partisanship is, as Russell Muirhead argued, the lifeblood of democracy. It is a principle of accountability: competition is what we use to keep others in check. Partisanship is necessary for the formation of political identities, for creating durable institutions around political ideas, and for giving us a team to cheer.
A battle against a worthy political opponent is far more exciting than an anaemic politics of consensus building, of gathering together in fuzzy warmth and vapid agreement. On the other hand, partisanship can unnerve a democracy. It can produce rancour and gridlock, and convert citizens into enemies. The prospect of successful democracy depends on how it negotiates this tension.
The coming election has thrown up deeper challenges of partisanship than usual. It is a deeply exciting election. There are new political formations, new leaders who may take India into uncharted territory. But the excitement also unleashes unprecedented partisan fury that threatens to corrode all sense of proportion. Our partisanship is of an unusual kind. It does not involve the usual battle of different sensibilities balancing each other: left versus right, the politics of privilege versus the politics of dispossession, freedom versus restraint.
There are elements of these principles, but the practices and commitments that give them content are often too vague or scattered across the political spectrum. To be sure, there is some general talk of governance. But that rests on the attributes of persons, not principles. Our partisanship in this election is strong because it is centred on a discourse of virtue and vice: its very essence is not that ideas must be defeated, but that persons must be brought down.
To an extent, this is inevitable. Narendra Modi’s candidacy was bound to generate this response. For his passionate critics, the core issue is his moral culpability, and focusing on anything but that or even suggesting that he might have some other virtues is an act of deep betrayal. For his loud and relentless defenders, there is now a mystique of infallibility around him: to so much continued…