Smacks of politics: Why we valorise slap-happy ‘heroes’

It was a smack that resonated around India. When Harvinder Singh landed a meaty slap on Sharad Pawar yesterday, he claimed he was merely giving muscular articulation to widespread public despair over rampant inflation. By day’s end, he had earned considerably more than his Fifteen Minutes of Fame, thanks to the endless loop and whirl of television footage capturing the dramatic #Slapgate moment.

Somewhat more unusually, Harvinder Singh had also earned an enormous amount of goodwill from countless ordinary folks, including some commentators on Firstpost. They made clear, in fairly uninhibited prose, that the sturdy arm that delivered the resounding slap was an extension of their collective yearning for ‘instant justice’ against politicians who, in their estimation, had otherwise gone beyond the pale of any form of accountability.

Attempts to reason that such ready (and repeated) resort to violent methods of making a point or merely giving voice to disagreement pointed to a worrisome downward spiral in the political culture were met with equally spirited pushback .

Harvinder Sharma

The slap that Harvinder Singh (C) administered yesterday was somewhat more impersonal than might seem: it was directed not so much at a politician, but rather at a political establishment that had become unaccountable to its constituents. Naresh Sharma/Firstpost

Pawar is, of course, not the first politician to be subjected to this peculiar form of #facepalm experience. Just the other day, former telecom minister Sukh Ram, convicted and sentenced on corruption charges going back to the 1990s, was at the receiving end of one more of Harvinder Singh’s searing right hooks.

Over the years, other politicians – from Indira Gandhi to P Chidambaram – have had various projectiles hurled at them. And as anti-corruption activists Shanthi Bhushan and Arvind Kejriwal will readily testify, you don’t need to be a career politician to be beaten up for your political views or become the target for footwear in full flight.

Overseas too, there are several instances of politicians and leaders being subjected to similar ritual humiliations – such as being slapped or having shoes hurled at them. In one extreme case, a year ago, an Argentinian MP slapped a colleague in Parliament, live on camera. And even in more evolved democracies where the urge to smack a politician is more easily overcome owing to prevailing notions of propriety, there are ways of finding vicarious outlet for such guilty pleasures.

Earlier this year, a man in Nepal, who was frustrated with the political deadlock in the kingdom, slapped a politician in what he said was a sudden fit of anger. But as with Harvinder Singh, that man in Nepal became something of an instant societal hero and a channel for widespread disenchantment with the political establishment in its entirety.

Under what circumstances does a society that lays claims to an argumentative tradition, where the tarka shastra codifies the rules of debate and dialectics, give up on the Clash of Ideas and settles instead for muscular assertion of political points?

The widespread and high-decibel support for Harvinder Singh’s action is representative of an underlying collective sense of disenfranchisement and disempowerment that is widely felt in India. Despite all the ritualistic observance of the mechanics of democracy that ostensibly smoothes things out, the reality is that the political establishment has been gaming the system and is hopelessly out of touch with the problems of ordinary folks.

In that sense, the slap that Harvinder administered yesterday was somewhat more impersonal than might seem: it was directed not so much at a politician, but rather at a political establishment that had become unaccountable to its constituents. And since the political establishment itself is notorious for its wilful resort to violence, it certainly cannot lay claims to the moral high ground on this count.

Given the unequal power equation between, on the one hand, a lowly (and very frustrated and possibly hotheaded) small businessmen and, on the other, the entire political establishment, Harvinder was, for many, decidedly the underdog, the David who had squared off single-handedly against the political Goliath.

The frustrations and the agony of the underdog, which found expression in admittedly unorthodox fashion in this case, resonated with a wider audience, even if his battle ground and the symbolic adversary were perhaps ill-chosen.

The reflexive response of the political establishment has been to treat this as a security breach and to draw up the moat around itself. That is entirely the wrong response. Such a recourse will only accentuate their loss of common touch that led up to this in the first place. It will also feed the sense of popular alienation that accounts for why, for all the impropriety of a political culture that finds expression in an uncivil smack, #Slapgate heroes are valorised by sections of society.