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Tuesday, July 23rd, 2024

Decency in politics? It is not the leaders’ fault, as voters it is our responsibility


In the Lok Sabha elections, political parties fiercely attacked each other with their words. After these elections, a question has arisen about political decency or politeness. Politeness has a very important place in politics. Politeness as a political virtue shows that despite differences, one can connect with each other.

Souvik Chakraborty : Can civility or decency return to Indian politics? This is an urgent question. An often asked question. And, despite all our good intentions, it is a misleading one. When we say or even write ‘civility’, we usually mean one or more of the following. Politeness, being respectful, having good manners, speaking softly, not being too argumentative. But ‘civility’ – from the Latin root ‘cives’ – demands much more from us than namaste and smiles. ‘Cives’ is Latin for city or public space. As an analysis conducted by the Hannah Arendt Centre explains, ‘the practice of civility is the practice of being a citizen.’ To be ‘civil’ means to go beyond your private persona and be a ‘public person’ – a person with rights.

Politeness is a political virtue

Therefore, civility is deeply connected to politics. It is a ‘political virtue that upholds the political ideal that despite our differences and plurality, we can relate to each other as citizens.’ Therefore, politics is uncivil when we, even our politicians, cannot relate to each other, simply because we cannot agree on important issues. If politicians greet each other politely in the Central Hall of Parliament, but in public space, they seek to destroy each other’s organisations, or they dismiss every point raised by their rivals, then politics is uncivil. Even if the destruction or the exclusion is wrapped up in politeness.

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The difference in the election

This is an important difference, and it came across in these elections. Many of India’s talkative class were—rightly—dismayed by shrill election rhetoric and bitter personal attacks. In contrast, many of India’s poorer class voters were more concerned by the possibility that their constitutional rights—in particular, reservations—were allegedly under threat. Poor Indians instinctively understood what uncivil politics meant—politics that could potentially threaten the rights of citizens. Politics that says, ‘If we win big, we don’t need to listen to anyone, negotiate with anyone, especially those who don’t agree with us.’

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The question of the return of civility

So, when we, the elite, ask if civility can be returned to politics, what we should really be demanding is not polite, witty speeches and drawing room decorum during election campaigns (‘on the stump’, for those readers who prefer the American version). We should be demanding a politics that does not see engagement with rival politicians as weakness. That does not see the existence of rival politicians as an insult. That embraces the true concept of citizenship – to belong to the same place, we do not need to be the same.

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Meaning of Mohan Bhagwat’s speech

When RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat recently said that the opposition is not an adversary, he/she was talking about true civility in politics. Of course, many ‘liberals’ asked what exactly Bhagwat’s comments were about – he/she also spoke against ‘arrogance’. But that’s fine – as long as ‘liberals’ don’t dismiss Bhagwat because he/she is from the RSS. Liberals, and their sometimes close, sometimes distant cousins, the Left, can be rude in their politics. Just as the Right can be. True, in democracies the Right is often rude. But Left-liberals are no novices.

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What is polite and uncivil in democracy?

Politics for a ‘Hindu Rashtra’, even if it is done with impeccable humility, is uncivil in a religiously plural democracy. Similarly uncivil is politics done with humility that does not engage with those who claim to speak for the majority. Politics that says Israel can do anything in Gaza and Rafah – because Hamas started it – is uncivil. Similarly politics that says Israel, a rare democracy in West Asia, should be condemned as a nation, and Israelis, many of whom are staunch critics of Netanyahu, should be stigmatised as a nation. Once we understand what civility or decency means in politics, the answer to the question we asked – can civility return to Indian politics – is much more complex. It involves a reboot: politics is first about responsibility (towards people) and recognition (of differences), and then about winning and losing.

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Will politicians accept the change?

Can such a change happen naturally? Will politicians admit, oh my god, we have been so rude, this shouldn’t happen. If you think so, your optimism is misplaced. More likely, politicians in a democracy will respond to the one thing they think about all the time – votes. If the election results show that enough voters dislike rude politics, or more realistically dislike exceptionally rude politics, then politicians might get the message, or some version of it. If we analyse the 2024 elections closely and from various angles, the conclusion is clear: the result is that voters have taught the rude politician a lesson.

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Message from voters

If politicians decide to accept the true meaning of this verdict, a new change is possible. Not in a perfect way, of course. Never expect that in politics. But there will be a clear change nonetheless. But politicians may decide not to accept it. Partly perhaps because they cannot bear the thought of it. And partly perhaps because power breeds selective amnesia. The grandeur of political office can erase memories of those moments when a narrative, forever built on assumptions of electoral infallibility, fell apart. So what then? Simple. It is up to us voters. We must send the message again and again to whichever party is guilty of bad politics – until the message hits home.

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