India’s epics and folk literature are treasure houses of moral maxims. For thousands of years, they have shaped our people’s thinking on what’s right and wrong, and why the line separating the two should not be crossed. “Laxman Rekha” is one of those normative phrases from the Ramayana, which connotes what is acceptable behaviour, and what’s not, in any contest or quarrel. We need not go into its etymological roots in the specific episode in the epic involving the deeds of Rama, Sita, Laxman and Ravana. What is pertinent to the present context of the forthcoming elections to the 17th Lok Sabha is that both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his principal opponent, Rahul Gandhi, have crossed the Laxman Rekha. Both are, thereby, guilty of potentially imperilling our democratic system.
Perils to democracy first take birth in the intemperate words we use in our confrontation with our political opponents. Words are not ordinary things, empty of the power to hurt or heal. Wrong words, and the dark emotions and thoughts that engender them, can often harm a relationship or a situation far more than the use of physical weapons. When used by those in positions of leadership, they pollute the social and political atmosphere and can thereby toxify the thinking and conduct of rival camps. Which is why healthy democratic debate — one in which leaders set the example by adhering to the sanctity of words and deeds — is so essential for the healthy functioning and progressive development of our democratic system.
I begin by strongly disapproving the language of someone whose well-wisher I am. Rahul Gandhi’s use of the word “treason” to describe PM Modi’s role, based on the information available in the public domain so far on the Rafale deal, is egregious, to say the least. There is no doubt whatsoever that this deal has created a thick cloud of suspicion about the BJP government’s wrongdoing. And since “BJP/Government = Modi and Modi = BJP/Government” is the equation that the prime minister himself has deliberately scripted in the past five years, the cloud of suspicion hangs over his own credibility. But what exactly is his wrongdoing? Is it bribe-taking? Is it favouritism? Is it deliberate subversion of procedures? The media must have untrammelled freedom to investigate these questions, just as the opposition parties and the people have every right to ask the PM and his party/government colleagues to come clean in the matter. But can Modi be accused of “treason”, the patently unacceptable word Rahul Gandhi used in his press conference on February 12? No, he cannot. It’s simply indefensible to make that accusation. Apart from ominously lowering the level of the electoral campaign, the Congress party’s young president has presented himself to the discerning public as a politician who, with all his other good qualities, is yet to mature.
But what about Modi himself? As PM, he shoulders a far greater responsibility to not only adhere to the canons of the Indian Constitution but also to the ethical norms of democratic discourse. Despite his party’s professed devotion to Lord Rama, even a cursory scrutiny of his and his followers’ campaigning so far would show that they have little regard for the moral lessons of the Ramayana. His government has contemptuously transgressed the Laxman Rekha by misusing the institutions of governance, thereby besmirching Indian democracy in the eyes of the world. After having completed his full term of five years, and now seeking another term in office, one would have expected him to focus mainly on his government’s achievements and his own bold decisions. His boldest act thus far, undoubtedly, is demonetisation. But he is conspicuously silent on this. He is also mum on introducing GST, for which he pompously held a midnight session of Parliament, as if to put himself in the same league as Jawaharlal Nehru who addressed the nation from the same august hall on the midnight of August 14-15, 1947.
Modi has instead trained his guns on his political opponents, calling them “chor-lutere” (thieves and robbers) and projecting himself as a “chowkidar”, the sole protector of public funds. Never in independent India’s history — barring the dark but short-lived Emergency — has a prime minister misused the coercive instruments of governance so selectively against his rivals, and so brazenly protected the corrupt elements in his own party. The animus in the language he routinely uses against the Nehru-Gandhi family is unbecoming of the high office he holds. Both he and his party president Amit Shah are principally responsible for creating a post-2014 atmosphere in which supporters of the ruling dispensation habitually malign their critics as “anti-nationals” and “traitors”.
The consequences of this kind of competitive weaponisation of words are not going to be happy. Some degree of a verbal slugfest is inevitable in a multi-party democracy like ours. Nevertheless, when leaders lose self-restraint, their indisciplined followers go a mile farther in polarising our society and vitiating our polity.
What is to be done to stop our democracy’s slide into no-holds-barred, even violent, anarchy? Sadly, our Constitution has no provision for an “Acharya Sabha” (an advisory council of wise, widely respected and non-political elders), alongside the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. But what prevents both Rahul Gandhi and Modi from learning from their own elders? For example, Manmohan Singh recently said that he had used a “harsh word” when he predicted in 2014 that Modi would be a “disaster” as PM and did not want to repeat it. Similarly, Modi should atone for willfully ignoring his own party’s Margdarshak Mandal (Guidance Committee of Elders) and, in particular, for humiliatingly marginalising L K Advani, the BJP’s pitamah (father figure). When Rahul Gandhi first met Advani — it was a chance meeting at an airport lounge — the latter sagely told him, “we are political adversaries, not enemies”. Similarly, Advani also had no hesitation in sending, in 2011, a letter expressing “deep regrets” to Sonia Gandhi when the latter protested that a BJP document had mentioned her and her family as holders of black money in foreign accounts. Accepting one’s mistakes makes a leader stronger, not weaker.
Both Modi and Rahul should understand that democracy is not all about retaining, or capturing, power by means fair or foul. Above all, it is about strengthening the culture of democracy, which requires all leaders to conduct their politics within the ethical boundaries of the Laxman Rekha.
The writer was an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee