Politics in India, is a battle between 'cockroaches' and 'frogs'

Video killed the radio star, goes the 70s hit song. In India, the tune can be put to the words: democracy killed the political debating star. The stars couldn’t be worse for parliamentary debate and political language in general. Narendra Modi is like a frog sneered Salman Khurshid, Salman Khurshid is a cockroach, screamed the BJP’s Meenakshi Lekhi, Modi is a “gangu teli” snapped Ghulam Nabi Azad in an atrocious display of casteism. Modi has already called Sonia Gandhi “pasta ben” and Rahul Gandhi "a jersey cow”, Manmohan Singh has been called a “shikhandi” by Yashwant Sinha, the PM has also been called “nikamma” by LK Advani. Mani Shankar Aiyar’s rudeness is a staple on prime time and who can forget Sonia Gandhi’s epithet “maut ka saudagar” for Modi.

As pollster and now AAP member Yogendra Yadav pointed out recently, when political differences between parties hardly exist, when every political party seems to chase the same constituencies, when there is almost no substantial intellectual exchange of ideas and all parties clamour to grab the same “aam admi” bone, when from economic reforms to Food Security Bill to national security to corruption, the only debate is who is better and who is worse at each of them, then naturally all we are left with is personal abuse and name calling.

 Politics in India, is a battle between cockroaches and frogs

Protest and name-calling in parliament PTI

Let's take the debate on the Food Security Bill. The BJP’s line of attack on it is that it's not good enough, it does not give enough security to the poor, if the BJP was in power they would bring in a better Food Bill. In his letter to the Prime Minister, Modi writes: "In a nation concerned about meeting nutritional requirements, it is a bill that will push the nation towards malnutrition. The proposed Food Security Bill will keep the poor hungry and snatch away his food."

This is hardly a comprehensive intellectual attack on the high-spending subsidy culture of the Congress that has plunged India into an economic crisis. This is not an ideological attack on Congress-style “extravagant welfarism”. The fiscally conservative should attack the FSB as the fiscal disaster that it is. A real attack on the Food Security Bill would be if Modi and the BJP frontally attacked the bill from the viewpoint of solid Right-wing economics. If they said for example: India cannot afford the Food Security Bill, the Bill will nationalise agriculture and destroy the agricultural market, the Bill will make the government the main buyer of the farmers produce, the bill will bring back mass garibi, the proud Indian farmer will be reduced to a beggar. A Right-wing attack on the Bill would be to thunder that such a supreme act of condescension on India’s farmers, these acts born out of apparently charitable noblesse oblige, robs the farmer of his dignity. FSB should be an insult to every nationalist Indian and should be akin to the proud ashok chakra being replaced with a begging bowl! An economic Right-winger would argue why the Food Bill needs to be scrapped altogether and that is when we would see a real debate between Right-wing economics and the quasi-socialist approach.

But there is no scope of such a debate. That’s because like the Congress, the BJP, the BJD, the Left and everyone else are all after the same imagined “pro-poor” image. All parties from SP to DMK to AIADMK to BJD want to tinker around with politically-correct amendments in the FSB, but none are willing to openly say scrap the folly even if they secretly believe so. Like the Congress, the BJP does not want to be seen as a party of the rich. Like the Congress, the BJP does not want to be seen as a party openly advocating the free market. Like the Congress, the BJP does not want to be seen as a party openly opposing subsidies. Nor does the BJP want to be seen as a party openly opposing the “rights and entitlements” approach of the UPA. Because of this deadening artificial consensus between all political parties where in public they all basically stand for the same thing, there is no real debate on substantive issues. When there’s no real debate on substance, politicians can only attack each other on who is a “cockroach” and who is a “frog.”

Take the debate on talks with Pakistan. Here too every political party is rushing to outdo the other in hyper patriotism. All parties are united in the race for the nationalist vote. If the Congress believes in talks with Pakistan, as the Prime Minister does, then there should be a real debate on why Congress believes talks are a better way to deal with Pakistan than war. If the UPA inclines towards a “peacenik” constituency then there should be a real debate in parliament between say Salman Khurshid and Yashwant Sinha on why we should talk to Pakistan and why we should not. Once again that would be a real debate on a substantive point of ideological divergence, instead of each party bandying about labels of “traitor” and “anti national”.

Take the debate on reservations. What is Narendra Modi’s stand on quotas? Does he believe in reservations in government jobs, in private sector, or does he, for example endorse the Supreme Court’s recent order striking down quotas for faculty in super speciality posts? Modi’s middle class upper caste urban voters are likely to be opposed to quotas but is Modi free to voice an anti- quota line in public? Not really.

What about those in the Congress known to be pro- free market like Chidambaram? Is Chidambaram able, if he so believes, to argue the cause of the market and merit over the cause of reservations and affirmative action? Highly unlikely. Today no party can dare to publicly take a stand against quotas because the political costs are seen to be huge. No political party can ever question the intellectual or ideological basis for reservations even if they privately profess to be anti- quotas. Thus, on quotas and reservations too, there is no political debate in which parties are free to take ideologically opposing stances, the debate can only be about who is more “pro- quota” than the other.

As analyst and Liberty Institute director Barun S Mitra writes, “Once upon a time calling someone a “communist” was seen as a badge of honour, while “capitalist pig” was an insult. Subsequently, political name-calling became about “CIA stooges” vs “Soviet stooges”. But at least these labels had some ideological underpinnings. Today, because the political spectrum has narrowed so drastically the only way the parties are able to distinguish between each other is through personal adjectives like “nikamma”, “cockroach” “strong”, “weak”, “decisive” or “non- decisive”, adjectives which are devoid of any ideological underpinnings and are simply personal epithets.”

Today none of the major political parties would like to take a stand as either “communist” or “capitalist” or “pro-reservation” or “anti- reservation” or “pro FSB” or “anti FSB” or “pro- talks with Pakistan” or “anti- talks with Pakistan”. Instead, every party is competing to be everything, and every party sounds the same on every basic issue.

Even on secularism we are in dire need of a debate. The Congress believes it has the monopoly on secularism, the BJP believes it too is secular and the Congress is only “pseudo secular”. Would it not be a treat for the voter to see a full blown debate in parliament say between an Arun Jaitley and a Chidambaram on how each of the parties define their versions of secularism? In the secular-communal-appeasement dialogue of the deaf, there is no proper exchange of views on the role of religion in politics, approaches to minorities or on religious laws.

The narrowing of the spectrum of debate can, to some extent, be placed at the door of the monumental folly of Raiiv Gandhi known as the Anti- Defection Law. Passed through a constitutional amendment the Anti Defection Law makes debate meaningless because no MP is allowed to speak his mind without fear of losing his seat if he happens to diverge from the party line. Since the entire purpose of any debate is to try and persuade the adversary or swing the opposition’s mind, in the aftermath of the Anti- Defection Law there is no possibility of any change of mind or change in attitudes, because if any MP changes his mind or argues against his party, particularly if there is a party whip, he or she would forfeit his or her seat.

In 1969 when Indira Gandhi called for a “vote of conscience” for her presidential candidate VV Giri, as opposed to the Nijalingappa faction’s candidate of Sanjiva Reddy, Congress MPs openly went against the party and cast their votes in favour of Giri. If there had been an Anti defection law, the concept of a vote of conscience would have been unthinkable and the Congress government would have collapsed in 1969.

An important change in parliamentary rules could lead to more real serious debate, one that has been highlighted by BJD MP BJ Panda. This is that governments should not be able to veto debates. Debates and voting should not necessarily lead to the fall of governments.

Panda writes in Seminar magazine: Due to parliamentary rules for these dating from the pre-independence Government of India Acts of 1919 and 1935 – whose ethos was to provide a platform for the natives to vent their ire but not exert real pressure – the opposition is almost always left with an all or nothing situation. That is, they have no middle ground between a toothless debate and a motion of no confidence to legitimately pressurize the government (short of unseating it). Ambiguous rules need to be replaced with specific ones. For instance, if one-third of MPs give notice for voting motions, there should be one. This will break the logjam of setting the parliamentary agenda, and also force the government to sell its agenda to the nation instead of trying to sneak or bulldoze it through.”

Recently British Prime Minister David Cameron suffered a humiliating defeat in the House Of Commons when many rebel Tory MPs voted against him on the EU budget vote. A long debate saw Tories arguing against each other and openly against the prime minister. Inspite of this, the government has remained safe and there was no threat of Cameron’s ouster. In India, any open arguments against the PM would immediately lead to speculation about the governent’s fall. Such a sword of Damocles constantly hanging over the survival of the government means there is hardly any inclination for an open honest debate or defeating a government policy by vote.

Democratic politics is primarily a contest of ideas, of arguments and counter arguments on the floor of the elected House, based on ideological positions. But if all debate is shut down because of antideluvian parliamentary rules, stifling legislations like the Anti Defection law and by political parties simply not having the confidence to take a stand, then all we are left with is name calling and slanging matches. There may be a semblance of debates in TV studios, but even these inevitably degenerate into walkouts and abuse.

It is because there is an absence of any real ideological difference among political parties, who are all scrambling for the same vote banks in roughly the same language, that political rivalry today manifests itself only as a battle between “cockroaches” and “frogs”.

Updated Date: Aug 20, 2013 18:00:32 IST