India without ideas: The decline of democratic debate

"Sad a fine mind like Mani Shankar chose to personalise again what was actually a very good debate. Led to Ravi Shankar walking out. Sad," tweeted CNN-IBN anchor Rajdeep Sardesai soon after last night's India @ 9 show. Sardesai was ruing the disintegration of an important debate over Defence Minister AK Antony's statement in Parliament on the LoC ambush, and the opposition's response to the same.

"Mr Rajdeep, this is very, very unfair. If he's getting personal like this then leave me out, thank you!" declared BJP's Rajya Sabha leader Ravi Shankar Prasad as he stormed off screen, his exit prompted by this tirade from Aiyar:

When I was called a "Pakistani agent", there was not one word of support from Ravi Shankar Prasad or anybody in the opposition. It was for the chairman to say in very stern terms, "I beg your pardon!' And I said, 'How dare you say that to me!" What support have I got from all these super-patriots we have on the opposition benches. Today, the entire time was taken up by Ravi Shankar Prasad listening to his own voice.

Personal attacks are just plain easier: Reuters

Personal attacks are just plain easier: Reuters

As any Mani-watcher would know, this is mild stuff for a man who has called BJP spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi a propagandist and Suresh Kalmadi a liar; and described Tavleen Singh as "a person who goes to parties and writes books about it." (She first accused him of cynicism and insensitivity, to be fair)

And as expected, Sardesai's tweet evoked a fresh round of name-calling from supporters on both sides. "Request pls deport ur genius of Sycophancy, insane & motor mouthed Mani Aiyer to Pak, his genius will be of gr8 help to Pak," replied one BJP supporter, while a Congress fan congratulated "genius Mani Shankar Aiyer for making mediocre arrogant lawyer R.S. Prasad of BJP walking out of debate."

Ad hominem attacks are what pass for political debate in our nation today.

The rhetoric of the political class increasingly mirrors the invective of their most rabid supporters. The favoured line of attack is not to challenge the another person's ideas, but to lay into the person himself.

Why argue against Aiyar's advocacy of dialogue with Pakistan, when you can call him a traitor instead. And why speak to the deterioration of parliamentary debates when you can question the democratic credentials of Ravi Shankar Prasad. Of course, Prasad got off easy. The last time, Aiyar spoke of parliamentary deadlock, he compared opposition MPs to animals.

The devolution of Aiyar, which Sardesai rues, reflects the larger erosion of the norms of intellectual engagement in this country. We no longer debate ideas, we attack individuals.

One reason is that personal attacks are more effective because they get instant attention.

Call Narendra Modi a thug and the sound-byte will likely play on an endless loop on every news channel. A measured criticism of the Gujarat model is unlikely to gain much traction, or earn you an invite on that TV panel. Subramanyan Swamy's social media popularity is built entirely on anti-Congress invective, the most tasteless of which he reserves for members of the Gandhi family.

The other is that going personal is just plain easier. The recent Jagdish Bhagwati-Amartya Sen feud was entirely devoid of any intellectual engagement with the actual prescriptions of the two economists. Since critiquing his ideas would require greater energy, anti-Sen trolls attacked Sen's personal life and family as a way to intimidate him into silence.

Bhagwati may or may not be right on policy, but he too went for the low road, comparing Sen to an anti-Semite.

In his latest outing, Bhagwati astoundingly blames Sen for the lynching campaign against him -- a fate he brought on himself by expressing a preference for Prime Minister: "Having dragged himself into the political maelstrom, Mr. Sen now faces predictably gutter politics, as (I am told) lascivious photos of his actress daughter are now circulating on the internet."

We now defend personal attacks by any means possible. We blame the victim. Or as Aiyar does, we respond to insults with more of the uglier kind. Round and round we go, circling the drain. Perhaps it is time we stopped pontificating on the idea of India, and confronting instead the ugly reality of an India bereft of ideas.