City City Bang Bang, Columns

The fine art of political one-downmanship

Just as the BJP was getting its stride on the Wikileaks revelations about the UPA government’s direct involvement in the cash-for-votes scandal, it finds itself on the other side of the firing line. The newer Wikileaks cables purportedly reveal how it played a duplicitous game by publicly opposing the nuclear deal with the US while privately supporting it as well point towards Arun Jaitley’s alleged doublespeak on the issue of Hindu nationalism. As most newspaper headlines announcing this indicate, it is widely expected that this will blunt the ferocity of its attack on the ruling party as the higher moral ground it was standing on has vanished under its feet.

And yet, there is no reason why this should be so. The two matters are not related and two wrongs can hardly cancel each other out. And while it is unlikely that the BJP will drop the cash-for-votes issue because of this, we are witnessing a debate where both parties, having something to shout at each other about, are proceeding to do so with cacophonous incoherence.

It is interesting how many debates in India seem to rest on a form of competitive one-downmanship. Raise the Gujarat riots issue and it will be countered by the 1984 mass murders. Talk of the corruption in Maharashtra only to find it answered by being pointed towards the situation in Karnataka. Highlight the number of candidates with criminal records in one party only to be shown the statistics of the other. Every misdemeanour seems to have an equal and opposite misconduct. The political parties excel at balancing out venality, hypocrisy, corruption and even genocide.

The principal mode of argument is one that goes ‘you have no right to say anything to me on this subject since you are as guilty as I am’ rather than debate the merits of the case. The ploy of arguing the arguer rather than the argument is an old, but astonishingly effective one. Every debate thus becomes an exercise in an escalating form of diversion, where each attack is countered by another one, and where the argument moves inexorably away from the core issue at hand towards trying to establish who has the moral authority to speak.

What is most telling is that each transgression implicitly legitimises the next, this time by the other side. By believing that my sin can be silenced by your transgression, what gets set in motion is a chain of excusable lapses. While it appears that each time a wrong is committed, the party in question faces an uproar both in media and Parliament, a closer examination reveals that all that is happening is that politics seems to be about balancing wrongdoing rather than pursuing the common good.

In effect, what has happened is that political parties act as if they have to answer to each other rather than to civil society. Over a period of time, on certain issues, parties have lost the ability to represent people, they end up representing only themselves. And since they are themselves often deeply compromised, the debate degenerates quickly into name-calling. Corruption in Maharashtra is not answer to corruption in Karnataka; it is an admission of a wider, deeper problem.

The biggest contributor to this state of affairs is our belief in the institution of the debate. A debate works when the focus is on an issue, and when opposing viewpoints argue their case in front of an audience in order to persuade them to their point of view. A debate also assumes implicitly that both sides have the legitimacy to represent the sides that they are arguing for. Increasingly, this has ceased to be the case which is why most debates turn out to be about whether the debaters at all have a right to pose questions to the other side. In the absence of this legitimacy the debate becomes an act of diversionary hypnosis, a deliberate attempt to distract our attention away from what is substantive. We are transfixed by the spectacle of the debate, we count the punches that are thrown and take pleasure in the blood that sprays out when some of these land. We becomes judges in a reality show, giving points for performances, funnelling our own feelings through a particular side.

The television debate enshrines this form of spectacle. Heat wins over light every time, and channels take care to see that this is so. By framing issues in a accusatory style and by adopting an oppositional mode of discourse, we are guaranteed a raucous time. The anchor gets to play both provocateur asking tough questions as well as wise judge presiding over a bunch of squabbling children. Rarely is any attempt made to cut off diversionary name calling tactics.

It is no accident that the cash-for-votes scandal had died a quiet and early death. The UPA might have won that sleazy battle, but the game seemed to have been played by both sides. Equally, no party has made a serious attempt to check the rise of criminal forces in politics for the truth is that no one can do without the muscle and money they bring to the table. The opposition may make black money an election issue, but no party has asked for any concrete reform, for instance a change in stamp duties that will eliminate one of its prime sources- real estate. Everyone recognises that extensive police reforms are the need of the hour and indeed have been for a few decades now, but not a single party is interested in doing anything concrete about it.

The larger truth is that balance is often mistaken for a form of justice. The democratic process seems to be observed when we give the right for different points of view to attack each other. But this can be an illusion as it has been for several years in India. The nakedness of the political parties gets cloaked with their ability to point out each other’s absence of respectability. The public’s gaze is made to flit rapidly between the two sides so as to blur the realisation of just how bereft of legitimacy both sides are. In absence of a legitimate intent, debate becomes mere defensive justification and competitive name calling.