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Tuesday, February 18, 2020

To Say and Not to Mean

Hypocrisy is not a bug, it is a feature of democratic politics.

Updated: March 16, 2014 3:50:33 pm

Hypocrisy is the by-product of trying to reconcile differences, and in a context as diverse as India, there’s just no getting away from it.

What matters in a politician? In certain quarters, they seem to be judged by the same qualities used to measure friends and acquaintances — reliability and authenticity.

Ram Vilas Paswan’s sidling up to Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar’s ditching of the alliance over Modi’s leadership have been criticised for undermining their previously stated beliefs about secularism and Modi. Opponents have suggested their actions are proof of duplicity, and by unspoken extension, their untrustworthiness as representatives of the people.

These contradictions are not confined to any one political camp. Many have pointed to the dissonance between Modi’s anti-dynasty rhetoric and the BJP’s forest of family trees. The sting operations that revealed Arvind Kejriwal’s whispered conversation with an Aaj Tak anchor, suggesting he wanted to go soft on the corporations he publicly pillories, has been held up as an example of contemptible falsity. Kejriwal taking a company chartered plane has been pointed out and mocked. Rahul Gandhi going on about anti-corruption bills despite the UPA’s dismal record on corruption, and his own long absences from Parliament, invites disparaging comment. In other words, political commentary is very interested in the gap between the talk and the walk. To hear many in the mainstream and social media tell it, the besetting vice in our politics is hypocrisy.

But is it really such a big deal? For the Indian electorate, it doesn’t seem to be. Alliances shift shape all the time, and there are no penalties for parties acting in blatant self-interest. Political scholar Judith Shklar ranked hypocrisy as a relatively minor problem in the array of political defects, and, in fact, as one that effectively bolsters liberal democracy. “Honesties that humiliate… would ruin democratic civility in a political society in which people have many serious differences of belief and interest,” she writes. This space that she identified between “public manners” and “private laxities” was developed into a book by David Runciman, who traced the shifting valences of hypocrisy from Hobbes to Cromwell, Mandeville to Orwell. The Greek word “hypokrisis”, meant “the playing of a part”. It’s one of those things we understand and forgive implicitly in our private lives — who could possibly sustain utter truthfulness across relationships and contexts?

Election campaigns, which require one to be all things to all people, are also bound to involve some finessing, some adjusting of the record, unrealistic promises. Runciman warns that only unfree societies, empires and dictatorships, are free of these inconsistencies: “Imperialism without the mask of democracy — in other words, the anti-hypocritical exercise of power without compunction or concealment, in which power is utterly transparent to itself — would be fascism.” It is ironic that democracy, which is built on the regular production of accountability, is also what compels politicians to be slippery. Hypocrisy is the by-product of trying to reconcile differences, and in a context as diverse as India, there’s just no getting away from it.

These deceptions come in all sizes, from XS to XL, and the challenge is to sift the ones that matter from the ones that don’t. In other words, choose the right hypocrisies. Play a part, Runciman says, but choose a part that is true to the demands of the system itself. When it comes to actions that run counter to the very tenets of democracy and rule of law — like extra-judicial killings mattering in one region and not in another (Gujarat, for instance, but not Punjab or Manipur), the moral gulf between official justification and private action matters very much indeed.

But individual sincerity is irrelevant when you evaluate a politician — it is the wrong measure. For instance, it would be swell if your accountant was a good husband too, but that’s not the aspect that concerns you. Politicians, too, should be judged for their politics, their theories of justice, their competence, their judgment, rather than held to Boy Scout standards. Getting things done and arbitrating the interests of different groups invariably involves compromising one’s own stated desires. Getting a bill through Parliament, for instance, even one with cross-party support like the food bill or the Lokpal, would require enormous amounts of wheedling and negotiation, ceding and asserting.

But no matter what TV talk shows preach, most Indian voters are a world away from Americans, who care about the public consistency of a candidate and correlate that with integrity. Most of us are cool with shifting stands on issues, maybe because patronage is still the prime motivator in our decisions.

The trouble is for parties and individuals who pretend otherwise, and suggest that only others have public masks. The Aam Aadmi Party, for instance, will be less easily forgiven for being politic, or choosing one sectional interest while claiming to think of “the people”. The facade of moral superiority doesn’t wear well in the democratic fray. n

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