It’s just not funny. India @70 behaves like a troubled teenager on steroids, throwing caution to the winds, tradition into the compost pit of invective and inanity, and decency to the fight clubs of debasement and destruction. On the vast historical stage of Indian democracy, elections have become stand-up comedy where one-liners attract more applause than analysis, and coarseness triumphs over consideration.
As the recent state poll campaigns showed, winning at any cost is the only purpose—a template the Congress party perfected after regional power began to rear its ebullient head in the 1980s. Elections are being fought not over performance but pronunciation. Leaders seek endorsements from the people not for the delivery of promises but for sassy speeches. Voters are lassoed with competitive whataboutery and libelous lung power by politicians whose posture is not commensurate with their stature.
Even when the contesting parties have enough performance records under their belt, their leaders and followers are going biliously ballistic like schoolchildren squabbling over my-lollypop-is-bigger-than-yours. Election rallies have become a nightmarish burlesque. Speeches are high on abuse and low on substance. It looks like the sensible are staying away in contempt—the crowds consist mainly of blind worshippers, fierce followers and fence sitters. Not too long ago, the quality of oratory and the response of the audience could guarantee an electoral outcome. Not anymore. Now captive herds of supporters abrade their vocal chords in sycophantic cacophony to register their loyalty to the bosses on the stage. Election manifestos just become part of party archives and are hardly seen, perused and pondered over by voters. However, social media slugfests are providing mucho derisive entertainment than constructive criticism.
The nasty nature of the ongoing election campaign in Karnataka mirrors the degeneration of democratic dialogue, debate and deliberations on issues that influence the lives of the people. Congress president Rahul Gandhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, BJP president Amit Shah et al have chosen to talk more about each other than the people they swear to serve. It is not that the Congress party has little to show as its achievements in Karnataka during the past five years. But both the BJP and Congress have concluded that individual-bashing would yield better dividends and infuse workers with aggression. Modi is undoubtedly India’s Demosthenes par excellence, with the wit, verve and vinegar to keep his audience in thrall.
Even a rainbow confederacy of Siddaramaiah, Rahul and other leaders cannot match NaMo’s voltage. Yet voters seem to be confused about the issues at stake. Is this state poll a battle for restoring Karnataka’s pride? Or is it just a pissing contest between outsiders Modi and Rahul, who have nothing to do with the administration of the state? As usual, Modi set the tone for the electoral discourse by taking on Rahul’s tailoring on his first visit to the state last week as PM, and questioned his oratorical and political acumen apart from his privileged DNA. He challenged his bête noire to speak for just 15 minutes on the performance of the state government. The rebuttal came from Siddaramaiah instead, who tweeted a dare to Modi to talk about the achievements of former Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa.
Surprisingly, in the battle of vitriolic barbs, Battle Karnataka is turning out to be a brawl between Siddaramaiah and Modi and not between the incumbent CM and a pummelled predecessor. Since Modi is the BJP’s most powerful and popular weapon, the party has identified Rahul as its lead skittle, being a soft target compared to Siddu. The Congress, meanwhile, is attempting to convert the election into a fracas between the CM and the PM.
This serves the twin object of keeping Rahul away from the fallout of an electoral disaster while denting Modi’s image in case the BJP bites the dust. The saffron outfit is painting the Congress as an organisation which does not respect senior political leaders like former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda. Siddaramaiah’s reaction was to tweet an old picture of Modi ignoring Yeddy, who is seen holding his hand and bowing low to him. The BJP used the social media imaginatively to its seismic advantage in 2014. But now the beast is out of the cage. Its fangs are showing as it froths at the mouth: all the propagandist needs is a keypad and fast fingers to ignite cyberwars that use masala and malice as missiles of mass destruction. The masses are not amused.
The Prime Minister and his party have been attacking the Karnataka chief minister for sleeping during public meetings and official conferences and having decided to contest from two constituencies, as well as his son’s electoral debut. In a public meeting, Modi called Siddaramaiah a sleeping chief minister who is playing it safe, fearing a rout.
Once again, like a professional troll, Siddu questioned Modi’s decision to contest from two Lok Sabha seats in 2014 despite claiming to possess a 56-inch broad chest. As the poll date nears, parties are getting insomnia over the nightmare of defeat or a delicate majority where coalition capers would combust governance, which would be flung into the merciless hands of poseurs spouting purple prose. The malady of malapropisms is now a pox on polity and the melancholy of the thinking man, an outcast in this surge of savage opinions and accusations.
Even dress has become an issue. Modi joked at a campaign rally, "Hum toh acche kapde bhi nahi pehen sakte (We don't even get to wear good clothes)". The hyperactive social media team of the Congress ignored the nuance behind the statement. Its social media chief Divya Spandana posted a photograph of the prime minister sporting an expensive jacket supposedly priced at `12 lakh on his Europe trip last month and wondered about the credit card bill.
When both parties raised development issues, it appeared to be mere formality—Modi claimed about 14 lakh farmers from Karnataka had benefitted from the PM Fasal Bima Yojna, a claim that was promptly dissed by the chief minister, who claimed it was his government that had spent 50 per cent of the total amount of the scheme.
In this compulsively colourful, high-tech and high-cost ballot rumpus, the development of the state has given up space to verbal acrobatics. Once the verdict is out, a Quote of the Day TV pundit might be heard recalling Bill Clinton’s famous line spoken in the chaotic aftermath of the 2000 US presidential election. "The people have spoken: we're just not sure what they've said." In Karnataka, the people don't seem to be sure what their leaders are saying. Dialogue in Indian democracy has taken its last bow. A demonized democracy has just swaggered up on stage.
Follow him on Twitter @PrabhuChawla