‘Politics’ is like a crowd-sourced and crowd-managed restaurant menu – anyone can come in, add items, modify them, erase them, and re-add them. For the longest time, the speech acts of only political elites framed ‘issues’ for us, defining what is ‘political’ and what isn’t. Although today, with the dominance of social media, this process of ‘issue-isation’ has been democratically appropriated by a conscious cyber elite, the immediate onus for setting the political agenda is on political leaders. They still very much shape the public and media discourse on issues and non-issues given the absolute centrality of their position. Hence, they remain the key scriptwriters of the country’s continuous political narrative; and right now, the ‘story’ is veering towards a comedy of errors.
Recently, two electrifying political dramas unfolded before the already riled up Indian public, in a manner that was both sordid yet unsurprising. A core issue – that of ‘public accountability’ – was deliberately and methodically slow-cooked over the crackling fire of old-school politics, perhaps to roast it into tender pieces of public morality for the media and citizenry to relish. First, the Chief Minister of Delhi Arvind Kejriwal embarked on a relentless endeavour to milk out a full public disclosure of the Prime Minister’s academic qualifications. Second, the ruling party perseveringly filibustered Parliament sessions to yell over a major corruption scandal by its prime opposition party. In both cases, both the warring parties have already ended up embarrassed in one way or the other, but do not seem to be retreating any soon. Are these issues really ‘political’ in nature?
When asking for the PM’s college degree, did Kejriwal explain why a full public disclosure of the PM’s college education is suddenly so imperative? If this is about accountability (which it is), then he could have fared better by exposing the administration’s lapse of transparency instead of unilaterally attacking the Prime Minister. I do not attest to the moral values of my Prime Minister, neither can I claim that he is an ‘honest’ man. He might have produced a forged degree for all I know because he has the faculties to do so. But, how about talking about the system that allowed him to do so? How about highlighting the fact that there is a systemic lapse here – how Prime Ministerial candidates get elected to the post, or how universities can be institutionally maneuvered? This could have been about the processual deficiencies in the system, which has perhaps failed to stipulate the right selection parameters for the highest legislative post in the country, or about the political subversion of educational institutions that are meant to operate autonomously. That would have at least triggered a debate (healthy or otherwise) surrounding these issues, and proactively sponsoring such popular deliberations from the political forefront would have indeed marked the coming of a new kind of politics in India.
But, Kejriwal’s counternarrative of cherry-picking the PM is hugely self-defeating, because it only reinforces the notion that the current administration is merely a defunct planetary system revolving around the Sun called Narendra Modi. He has only ended up asserting, in loud and clear words, that singular public leaders should be the numero uno target for honest public disclosures. That isn’t anything much but textbook personality politics, visible across most of our postcolonial history. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that I had placed my unwavering faith on three years back was the one that wanted to change politics (or perhaps the ‘system’), not walk right into it like it’s an ice-cream parlour. Nitpicking political opponents and digging up the past – that too on debatable parameters like ‘college education’ – is NOT ‘alternative politics’. In fact, it is the most regressively vintage form of inward-looking politicking.
Similarly, has the Bharatia Janata Party (BJP) provided a coherent justification for why the Congress’ corrupt getaways deserve such tremendous amounts of floor time in the House? At the very outset, ‘corruption’ looks like an obvious political dish, but given the open-frame of politics, it need not be. That’s because corruption too is a systemic fault, and it is best dealt systematically. It is like that one wretched card that slips off from your grand card-house without the slightest of warning, and bam, you end up with a trembling house of cards. From here, you can go two places – either pick up the card and start cussing the wind, or you know, try to put the card back into its right place and fix it before the structure comes crashing down. There could be ample institutional ways to counter administrative graft (maybe not of every kind), and the government has all the resources at its disposal for affirmative action.
Again, if this is about accountability, then the government could have stopped itself at filing a legal case against the ones involved, pursuing it vigorously and relentlessly. I do not think that partisan corruption does not deserve attention in the house. After all, loss of taxpayers’ money for private interests of administrative figures is a grossly unfortunate act of public disservice. But, individual assaults aren’t effectual in the functional sense – beyond assassinating characters, they cannot achieve anything more (like maybe a sustainable solution?). Really, why squander precious House floor time to constantly blubber over Sonia Gandhi’s Sicilian slyness? The Lok Sabha is not a courthouse for protracted public trials. It is a legislative forum for policymaking and dialogic governance. Similarly, ‘the detailed decadent lives of corrupt politicians’ isn’t a functional talking point for a legislative body, but ‘institutional corruption’ is.
‘Issues’ must be set in a way that ‘governance’ does not lose its substantive, utilitarian core. Lapses and faults must be dealt with in the right places, through germane remedial mechanisms, and not exhibited in public like a comical theatrical performance. We do not need more red herrings in a country where sex-scandals and celebrity suicides are breaking news material. The setting of public discourse should not turn governance into a retributive and non-substantive gameplay, but rather a progressive paradigm of public service delivery. Competitive politicking is obviously unavoidable in a democratic multiparty system, but a brutal moral warfare in which the crossfire entraps the common public is certainly avoidable. You throw a fake degree certificate, ten others throw fake admit cards back at you. Accusatory politics, in all its form and character, is innately cyclic and interminable. It just never ends! Toying around with The People’s mandate is the lowliest political act that there can be – the greatest assault on the social contract – and two popular parties are doing precisely that as I write. Bleak times for Indian ‘politics’.