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Sunday, July 22, 2018

Closing argument

This Delhi campaign was high on oratory, low on debate.

Written by Valson Thampu | Published: February 6, 2015 1:11:21 am
A crowd can be told. Citizens have to be answered. A crowd can be indoctrinated. Citizens have to be convinced. A crowd can be told. Citizens have to be answered. A crowd can be indoctrinated. Citizens have to be convinced.

One element missing in the Delhi campaign was a pre-poll debate. A recent survey revealed that 72 per cent of the Delhiites questioned wanted such a debate. Democracy is not merely about mobilising crowds and creating hype. The soul of democracy is the right to make informed choices. It is about the freedom citizens have to make the sort of political choices that they feel will safeguard their happiness and fortify the health of their society.

The maturity of the Delhi voter underpins this expectation. Today, she has an unprecedented level of awareness about the culture of a democracy. The competing parties may want to project this election as a clash of personalities, but the Delhi voter sees it as a contest between different models of democracy, different approaches and different value systems in the political space. Citizens are not, in the end, interested in Kiran Bedi or Arvind Kejriwal. They are interested in their own predicaments, their needs, hopes and woes. To reduce this election to a mere Bedi vs Kejriwal wrestling match would be a caricature.

Political parties, especially those with unlimited resources, tend to depend increasingly on media and crowd power to create a personality cult. “Dynasty” has given way, almost overnight, to “personality”. In the general elections of 2014, the media played a decisive role in creating hype that fed into what was perceived to be a popular frenzy. Political loyalties, as a result, were escalated to the level of religious fervour.

This is an ominous development. Religion functions, especially at the mass level, on blind faith, not reason. The headiness of such religiosity stems from the fact that there is a larger-than-life leader to whom one may surrender, from whom all answers are derived, all riddles and anxieties set at rest. The so-called “presidential” model of democracy, in that sense, could come closer to a cult than is realised. The substitution of the right to make informed and reasoned choices with blind faith prognosticates the doom of a democratic culture.

But the monstrous over-expectation foisted on the masses cannot be sustained for long, much less fulfilled. Popular frenzy keeps poorly. Sooner rather than later, questions will begin to be asked. Questions are already being asked. Else, the BJP would not have turned to Bedi. Hence, the irony in the reluctance to debate, which most of us hope will be shortlived. Bedi was meant to be the BJP’s answer to the people of Delhi. Then why could she not answer them? Parroting the alibi that “delivery” speaks more than words cannot sustain the BJP for long. It is a response that fails to carry conviction given Bedi’s admiration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, one of the most powerful and irresistible communicators we have seen in a long while.

That is not all. Surely, Bedi is not unlettered in the logic and semantics of politics? Beginning from the Greek city states, speech and action have been deemed the two legs on which politics walk. In the Greek context, significantly, the spoken word was believed to be even more important than action. It was, in other words, the foremost action. Homer’s heroes were distinguished by their ability to speak well. Right speaking took priority, as it were, over right doing, even if there is no antinomy between the two. In politics, then as now, right doing cannot be put in opposition to right speaking — if that were to happen there would be no accountability in In the transition from dialogue to monologue, electoral faith has increasingly become based on hierarchy rather than equality. Huge crowds are addressed without the risk of a single question being raised. The crowds are presumably free, but they are free only to accept and applaud. This is not communication. It is authoritarian oracular utterance. It is a caricature of democracy. There are signs that fatigue is setting in on discerning citizens, beginning with Delhi. A public debate could have shifted the focus from crowds and restored it to individual citizens. A crowd can be told. Citizens have to be answered. A crowd can be indoctrinated. Citizens have to be convinced.

Ideally, the debate among the three major mascots — Bedi, Kejriwal and Ajay Maken — should have been a public event, where citizens had the right to question them. We needed a debate not only between political heavyweights but also between the citizens and them. To insist that debate makes sense only on the floor of the assembly is to slight the citizens of Delhi who must vote before doors of the vidhan sabha can open.

The writer is principal, St Stephen’s College, Delhi

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