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The partisan trap

Not only does it produce a vicious politics, it colonises everything else as well.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Updated: March 13, 2014 10:48 am

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 as concede that he might have made mistakes is to bring him down.

The AAP’s politics rests largely on showing how every party other than itself is compromised: it is shot through with the confidence of a self-declared virtue. It is not an accident, therefore, that much of the argumentative space in this election is colonised by charges of hypocrisy: who can expose whom, in fantasy, at least, if not in reality.

Some of this is healthy. It is a necessary corrective to the veil of silence that political collusion had drawn over so much vice. But we should be under no illusions that its lasting effects will go beyond the usual partisanship in politics. The charges are traded and the contest is defined in such personal terms that the process of formal reconciliation that democracy depends on will be so much harder.

But there is another danger. The very excitement of this election has drawn in new constituencies, most notably journalists. Cynics might be tempted to say that the interrogatory nature of this contest is particularly suited to journalistic talent. In case we are being too harsh on our journalist colleagues, it is worth remembering that Tocqueville had written that “the job of a journalist in America is to attack coarsely, without preparation or without art, to set aside principles in order to grab men”. But the danger is slightly broader than simply journalists joining politics or having normative commitments.

They are citizens and entitled to make these choices. It’s a good thing if people from several walks of life hitherto unconcerned with politics directly engage in it. The danger is slightly different: the enchantment of partisanship may breach all boundaries and engulf any sense of proportion or objectivity. The partisan contagion may corrode professional roles and judgement. This corrosion comes in two forms. In the most egregious cases, it leads to selective reporting, misplaced importance to certain facts, sometimes even falsehoods. In a more subtle form, the worry is not falsehood but a certain monomania: where journalists become more like lawyers for a prosecution or a defence. Their facts may not be wrong in a literal sense, but their vocation is reduced to exactly the same partisan contest in politics: take down the opponent, no matter what.

Such partisanship can, like political partisanship, be greatly motivating and productive. But it can also be corrosive. For one thing, it is coming in a context where the media as an institution has a serious credibility crisis. But more importantly, it tends to collapse the intellectual and the political. It is the essence of partisanship, particularly one centred on the conviction of virtue, to assume that virtue cannot be divided across parties. It has become anathema to suppose that even though we may be convinced about who is best for India, virtue and vice may not come in such neat packages.

John Stuart Mill saw the advantages of partisanship. We should have a tolerance for “the one eyed man, provided their eye is a penetrating one: if they saw more they would not see so keenly, nor so eagerly pursue one course of inquiry”. But he also realised that combative partisans rarely convince their opponents. Where this clash has a salutary effect is on non-partisans. This collision of arguments has an educative effect on them. But the danger is not just that partisanship produces a vicious politics: it is that it colonises everything else as well. For politics to work, someone has to be above it.

Don’t underestimate the costs of misjudged partisanship. The crisis of confidence in sections of American democracy are linked to it; partisan rancour excessively slowed down progress in India as well. As partisans become more personal, the scars of battle are also likely to be deeper. There is no magical balance between partisanship and detached objectivity. But a democracy that loses either is in danger of a partisan trap.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’

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