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Defending incivility

A campaign without restrictions on expression is an important and integral component of the electoral process

A  cantankerous chief minister who has people arrested for making comedic memes declares that she will deliver a “slap of democracy” to the prime minister. A sitting MLA refers to the colour of his opponents’ underwear as a metaphor for their ideological leanings. A union cabinet minister vows not to serve those from a religious group who do not vote for her. A sitting MLA calls the PM “the bride who makes noise with bangles but seldom works”. Another sitting MLA calls the PM “namard”. An aspiring MP vaunts about the potency of her curse. A former CM claims that female legislators fear that if the PM meets their husbands, they will abandon their wives like PM did. A sitting MP wonders if the PM will hang himself if the grand old party secures more than 40 seats. Leading the charge is the president of the grand old party, relentlessly attacking the PM with his “chowkidar chor hai” routine. The PM fired back by terming his attacker’s father and former PM as “Brashtachari No 1”.

This caused the self-appointed guardians of our morality to spring out of slumber and lament the “deep coarsening of political discourse”. A barrage of platitudes followed, with the 2019 election being termed as “the most important election of our lifetime” and “a battle for the soul of India”. There are perfunctory mentions about “incivility hurting the youth who look up to their leaders as their role models” and “the slow erosion of democratic values”. The concluding whine was about the “severe polarisation caused by these uncouthness” and the “desperate need for a leader who can unite us”.

Do these custodians of morality have a point? Is there any way we can improve the quality of discourse and bring people together?

Consider a hypothetical situation where the Election Commission is empowered and autonomous. They begin issuing orders of suspension for every “offensive” syllable uttered by everybody from an aspiring MP to the PM. They even apply a complete ban for the worst display of insolence. Quite soon, the politicians learn their lesson and conduct themselves with propriety. At campaigns, they merely read an inventory of achievements and cite the deficiencies of the Opposition. Their tone is measured and the smile is everlasting.

It would almost be as tiresome as watching NDTV when the somnambulist Ravish Kumar is on.

As US politician Mario Cuomo once noted, “You govern in prose, you campaign in poetry.”

Governing is dispassionate, laborious and time-consuming. It involves authoring laws and bills after multiple consultations, getting them passed through the legislature and then implementation. Quite often, the most crucial aspect is the perpetual maintenance of the implementation. The public seldom participates in or is aware of this process. Irrespective of the achievements, it is difficult to get the voters enthused by governing achievements such as deregulation, disinvestment, streamlining of procedures, tackling the fiscal deficit, agricultural reforms, infrastructural reforms, and economic reforms. The importance of governance is only realised when it is absent. Hence there have been several instances of electoral defeats despite able governance.

Campaigning is where governing achievements are communicated by tapping into the emotional core. This persuasion cannot be achieved by citing statistics of rapid road and bridge construction. There needs to be a heart-warming story attached. The bridge meant children from a village could travel to school instead of wading through deep water, an elderly man could travel by bus to a nearby hospital for his treatment instead of enduring pain due to a bumpy ride in a bullock cart, and a farmer could transport his produce to a nearby market.

But persuasion is not just about painting a picture of the favourable. It also involves citing an unfavourable eventuality to cause deterrence. This fear is a very effective and valid tool of persuasion. Vote for us or high taxes will cause you a loss of savings. Vote for us or the next government will indulge in appeasement of a certain religious group that will cause harm to you. Vote for us or there will be terror attacks. Vote for us or illegal immigrants will steal your jobs. Vote for us or there will be another demonetisation.

Another effective tool of persuasion is the personal insult. Dilbert creator and persuasion expert Scott Adams coined the term “linguistic kill shot”. The attacker highlights the weakness of the target by branding him or her with a terse and unique combination of words that are as catchy as they are funny. Constant repetition of the linguistic kill shot can permanently and unfavourably redefine the target. To the untrained, this may seem like school playground tactics but it is, in reality, most effective. For example, “Pappu” paints an image of an individual who is immature and consequently unprepared for major responsibilities.

All this means the electoral campaign is no different from improvisational theatre; there is a script but there are myriad possibilities beyond. There will be exaggerations and blatant mendacity. There will be distractions and attempts to conceal failures. There will be digging up of seemingly irrelevant history. The proceedings could devolve into the lewd, crude and profane and scary. But we have a free media to monitor and even fact check.

It will be interesting to study if these campaigns really have any impact on voting choice. For an election such as 2019, one would assume that most voters made up their minds a long time ago and their attendance of a rally is for the many inducements or the desire to revel in theatrics on display.

Will all this abrasive talk have a deleterious effect on our youth? The politicians have clearly lost that race. The youth of today are exposed to myriad instances of detestable behaviour: from street corners to social media to the latest web series. One would hope that they have robust values such that they do not imbibe and imitate what they deem unfavourable.

Now for the big question of polarisation. As the late Christopher Hitchens said, “Politics and philosophy are division by definition. The dialectic is the sole way you learn. If there was no disagreement, if there is no conflict, there will be no politics. The illusion of unity is not worth having and anyway it’s unattainable.” In a free society, it is impossible for siblings to agree. How does one expect an entire people to agree with each other? If we all have identical positions on key issues, there would be no need for an election. The whole point of elections is opposing views clash and compete for the same votes.

Those who claim the division in India has never been this pronounced need to really recall history. In 1952, after the very first elections held in free India, the Congress party secured only 45 per cent of the votes at the Lok Sabha elections. In other words, 55 per cent of the voters were for non-Congress parties. It has to be remembered that the Opposition was almost non-existent and news media was in its infancy.

The reason that the Congress received thumping majorities is because of the goodwill and brand recognition from the freedom struggle and the numerous leaders. If you disliked Nehru but preferred Patel, you voted Congress. If you were a Gandhia, you voted Congress. If you despised Patel but admired Maulana Azad, you voted Congress. If Gandhi’s plan to dissolve the Congress was implemented and had every leader formed a political party of their own, the real divisions would have been apparent.

Even at its peak the Congress party never secured more than 50 per cent of the vote share during Lok Sabha elections. It proves that we have always been divided as a people, which is healthy. It also shows that the voting percentage of the winning party reduced as the government’s monopoly over the news media reduced. It is just that the proliferation of the news media and social media gives us outlets to express our differences and challenge the status quo. No longer is the narrative controlled by a select few.

The only nations where there is an appearance of consensus on all the issues are totalitarian or military or theocratic regimes. Where the imperious state exercises absolute and centralised control over all aspects of life, the individual is subordinated to the state, and opposing political and cultural expression is suppressed and is punishable by the law. For those worried about the soul of the nation, the totalitarian regime is formed by strangling the soul.

It is also true that by the compulsive virtue signallers lamenting the divisiveness are often those members of the old establishment who are uncomfortable with the rapid change. Their relentless yearning for the “good old days” is actually a yearning to regain some semblance of relevance. Their desire to dictate what is civil is the first step toward dictating what can and cannot be expressed. It is quite ironic that they lament the erosion of democratic values.

In the end, if we want to be a democracy, the path to achieving it must also be democratic. A campaign without restrictions on expression is an important and integral component of the electoral process. There will be vehement disagreements, scathing attacks, and raucous debates. The attempt to police expression is undemocratic and is already proving futile exercise since the canvas is so widespread. We cannot allow a few instances of “incivility” to be an excuse to restrain all expression. Above all, we must have faith in the voter’s ability to decide for himself or herself after being subjected to every point of view.

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