Demonising is demeaning democracy

Issues are dead, interred in the political graveyard of noxious nonsense. Slander has taken over.
Image used for representational purposes only.
Image used for representational purposes only. Express illustrations | Sourav Roy

“Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”

― Abraham Lincoln

“When widely-followed public figures feel free to say anything, without any fact-checking, it becomes impossible for a democracy to think intelligently about big issues.”

― Thomas L Friedman

Issues are dead, interred in the political graveyard of noxious nonsense. Slander has taken over. The meandering narrative of the current Lok Sabha elections has reduced a titanic exercise involving more than 900 million voters into a constitutional formality by integrating incessant invective inbred with indiscreet innovations, instead of upholding its topic-based elocution analogy.

The battle began on a high moral ground. A fight between Viksit Bharat by 2047 and Nyay for All. A mirror that reflects a Leader who Delivers vs Adversaries who Divide. For weeks, issues were confined to electing a government that governs, and dumping a party that destroys democratic institutions. BJP’s campaign began on a high note, as both the party and the prime minister unleashed their vikas astra of achieving a developed India by 2047. No saffron leader let an opportunity pass without counting the sarkar’s successes during the past decade. They publicised achievements such as constructing 35 km of national highways per day, 100 new airports, minimising terror attacks and communal riots, ensuring record growth rates and enhancing India’s acceptability as a major diplomatic and economic voice at international forums.

The golden pledge of ‘Modi ki guarantee’ was a call to trust a leader who delivered more than what he promised over a decade. The opposition parties, meanwhile, stuck to their accomplishments when they were in power and what would do if re-elected. When Modi blamed the Gandhi parivar for India’s ills, the Congress used their icons to reinforce the fact that the foundations of democratic and industrial India were laid by its founders.

So far, so good. Then came the summer of malcontents. The heat and dust infected political mindsets metaphorically, too—they lost the big picture and started bickering over inane issues. It has turned into a scrimmage between two negative narratives. By the time voting for more than half the Lok Sabha seats was over, the contretemps between political rivals had turned toxic. Political leaders, their followers and sponsored social influencers splattered memes and media masala to lower the tone along caste and communal lines, using shamelessly competitive and disruptive denigration.

Election 2024 is now a personal feud. Minorities, mangalsutras and mandirs have become the stigmata of political crucifixion. The battle is down to a fight between Marauding Modi and Rehearsing Rahul. In the process, Modi has defined Rahul and the Congress as his biggest adversaries. He said: “For five years, the Congress shehzada kept chanting one thing. After his Rafale issue was grounded, he started a new chant. Five industrialists, five industrialists, five industrialists. Gradually, he started saying Ambani-Adani.

But ever since the elections were announced, he stopped abusing Ambani and Adani. Today I want to ask from Telangana’s soil, he must declare how much money they have taken from Ambani, Adani. Was there a deal? Why did you stop abusing Ambani and Adani overnight? Zaroor daal mein kuchh kaala hai (something is wrong).” Even hardcore Modi admirers were surprised by the remarks. But Modi chose Telangana for this verbal vilification because the Congress-run state recently signed numerous memorandums with the Adani Group for investments of over `12,500 crore.

Amit Shah, BJP’s master strategist, made it clear that the current election was between Modi and Rahul: “The 2024 election is a Rahul Gandhi versus Narendra Modi election. It is an election that pits ‘vote for jihad’ against ‘vote for vikas’.” His twist in the tiger’s tail: the voter must choose between Modi’s “Bharatiya guarantee” and Rahul’s “Chinese guarantee”. Shah has been setting the tone for a Hindutva-driven ideological charge using lurid saffron prose. Though he was speaking in Telangana, his message was meant for BJP cadres nationwide. He visualised a “triangle of appeasement” between the Congress, BRS and All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, saying, “These people don’t allow the celebration of Hyderabad Liberation Day (September 17). They want to run Telangana on the basis of Sharia and Quran.”

A newly-converted BJP MP from Maharashtra, Navneet Rana, took the polarisation piffle forward while campaigning for her party’s candidate in Hyderabad. She lampooned an inflammatory remark Akbaruddin Owaisi made in 2013, “The younger brother (Owaisi) said, ‘Remove police for 15 minutes so we can show what we can do.’ I want to tell him, ‘It might take you 15 minutes, but it will only take us 15 seconds’.” She claimed the BJP candidate Madhavi Latha would “definitely stop Hyderabad from turning into Pakistan” and warned anyone voting for the Congress or AIMIM would be voting for Pakistan.

The PM’s slogan of ‘Abki baar, 400 paar’ was paraded by prominent BJP leaders to promote a religious agenda, which wasn’t Modi’s original intention. Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, the raucously rising star in the saffron firmament, asserted in Odisha: “People ask us why we want 400 seats. We have to make sure Babri Masjid is never rebuilt in India. This is why we have to give PM Modi more than 400 seats... The Congress knows we are not going to stop at the Ram temple, we have to get every temple in our country released.”

The opposition parties aren’t holding their fire. Shiv Sena Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut from the Udhav Thackeray faction tastelessly compared Modi and Aurangzeb, and predicted a similar fate for the prime minister. Mamata Banerjee, who is under tremendous political and agency pressure, called BJP netas “looteras” out to destroy West Bengal; she called Modi “Insaan-hatya ka saudagar”, rudely reminiscent of Sonia Gandhi’s “Maut ka saudagar” obloquy that boomeranged. Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi were not far behind in making fun of Modi with social media jokes and poll platform platitudes.

Have our loquacious leaders forgotten that foul mouths and fouler methods don’t win elections? Modi took the 2014 win on an anti-corruption plank. In 2019, he got a record mandate even after Rahul coined the slogan ‘Chowkidar chor hai’. The real chowkidars of democracy are the people of India. Every five years, they venture out from million-dollar villas, apartment blocks, slums, village clusters and small farms to make up the decisive multitude determining the fate of the governing class. They are an army whose power can make or break governments. The people of India see voting as a day of empowerment, not a power grab. They expect clean voices and cleaner governance.

Just before India’s independence, Churchill had arrogantly wailed, “Power will go to the hands of rascals, rogues, freebooters. They will fight amongst themselves for power and India will be lost in political squabbles.” In these days of anti-colonialism fervour, it would be a pity if Winston got it right. Fortunately, a united and prospering India is in much safer hands for now.

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