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India Elections: How top leaders have contributed to falling standards of electoral discourse

BY SATISH MISRA
In one of the most bitter general elections in India’s independent existence, the standard of the electoral discourse has ebbed to a record depth. Below the belt attacks and counter-attacks from different political leaders including Prime Minister Narendra Modi have been a glaring feature in the already concluded five phases of polling. And, things are not going to be better in the remaining phase of polling exercise.
Though a possible reason for such a deterioration can be attributed to the ongoing ideological battle between forces of ‘Hindutva’ and ‘Gandhi-Nehru liberal framework’ to capture political power, yet the way it is being fought is fraught with serious consequences to the democratic polity. In order to comprehend the level of deterioration in the Indian electoral politics, taking a close look at some examples of the kind of abuses and mudslinging that is on display becomes imperative. Modi, who is feverishly campaigning to seek a fresh mandate for another term of five years, stirred a political controversy on May 4th at a rally at Pratapgarh in Uttar Pradesh. While alluding Congress chief Rahul Gandhi he said, “your father” former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who began his political journey as “Mr Clean” died as “Corrupt Number One”. It was, perhaps Mr Modi’s way to counter Rahul Gandhi’s accusation of him being involved in corruption, during the purchase of Rafale jet fighters plane from France.
The Prime Minster was referring to the Bofors payoff scam of mid-1980s, in which late Rajiv Gandhi had been accused of having received some kickbacks. Bofors scam turned out to be the dominating issue of the 1989 general elections in which Congress party was voted out of power. During the investigation, the Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) had filed a charge-sheet in the court holding Rajiv Gandhi an accused in the payoffs. However, after years of prolonged court proceedings, Delhi High Court had given a clean chit to Rajiv Gandhi. In its judgement the court stated, ‘So far as the public servants Rajiv Gandhi and S. K. Bhatnagar are concerned, 16 long years of investigation by the CBI could not unearth a scintilla of evidence against them for having accepted bribe/illegal gratification in awarding the contract in favour of A. B. Bofors’, while exonerating Rajiv Gandhi of the accusations. Though, it was not the first of its kind of the mudslinging attack that the Prime Minister had indulged in during the three months long electoral campaign, yet it received a lot of flak since it was against a former prime minister who had been assassinated by a terrorist outfit. From the opposition ranks, Congress chief Rahul Gandhi is the most prominent leader who has contributed towards heightening the electoral temperatures of the country. Through his slogan “Chowkidar Chor hai”, he has been continuously making an attack on PM Modi, in direct reference to the Rafale deal. Which, inadvertently has persuaded the BJP and its leaders to rake up the issue of Bofors scam to launch a counter attack on the Congress Party.
The ongoing verbal dual between West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the Prime Minister is also a classic example of how political leaders despite occupying seat of power. It’s a bit unimaginable to think that leaders of such national stature can stoop so low and contribute in the growing cynicism against politics and politicians at large. While Prime Minister Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah are leaving no stone unturned to launch frontal attack on Mamata Bannerjee, ‘Didi’ is also not lagging behind in heaping insults on Modi. ‘There is an emergency like situation in the country. Nobody can speak out in public as they are scared of him, “Stop this fascism and terror”, Banerjee told the audience at a rally.’ Earlier, she did not return the call from Modi who was keen to visit the state after Fani-Cyclone had wreaked havoc in the state. It is equally true that electoral discourse has been falling down since last couple of general elections. In 1989 general elections when Bofors Scam was a major issue, one of the frequently used slogans of the BJP was, “Bofors ke dalalon ko, Juta maro salon ko” which meant (Thrash Bofors middlemen with shoes). BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was one of the most prominent opposition leaders, pulled up his party followers for raising the above slogan at the Raipur airport thus, setting up an example of a sincere attempt on his part to arrest the downfall. In every successive elections in the country, the standard of verbal attack on political opponents has been on a gradual deterioration, as has been the politics of the country where realpolitik took over the ideals of freedom struggle. While Modi, like rest of the other Indian citizen, has complete freedom of expression to attack his political rivals — the Prime Minister of the country does not have the right to hold people guilty of a crime, for which he has been exonerated by the court of law. This act of the prime minister is very much questionable.
In the system of parliamentary democracy, both the ruling party/coalition and the opposition play an important role, and there is an equal responsibility of all to have a healthy competition among them. While, capturing power could be the legitimate objective of every political party, once in power it is expected to lead by examples. A leader has to lead from the front setting up examples for the people to follow but unfortunately the present level of political discourse is only sharpening tensions in the society. Failure of leaders and political parties to fulfill rising aspirations of people at large and youth in particular and growing expectations of good governance is resulting in disillusionment with the state of politics and democracy.
(Observer Research Foundation)

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