O, what a fall, my countrymen! That Shakespearean expression comes to mind this week as Indians go to vote in the heartland states of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan amid falling standards in national politics that ironically contrasts the new heights to which ordinary citizens are taking India with their extraordinary feats. Yatha raja, thatha praja (as is the king, so are the subjects), goes the old saying. If the opposite, yatha praja, thatha raja (as are the citizens, so is the king) is to be a true saying in a modern democracy, we seem to be in a schizophrenic phase in India's public life, where the sayings of the leaders do not tally with the actions of its exemplary citizens.
Mary Kom has just done India proud again by winning her sixth gold in world boxing. India's women cricketers are showing that both as a winnable game and a commercially viable one, the sport has broken the gender barrier in the country. We have sent a rocket to Mars and are planning to send one to the moon. Satellite launches have become mainstream. World class universities and international schools are mushrooming. Billion-dollar 'unicorns' are commonspeak among India's 20-something technology entrepreneurs.
Now, look at the low-level name-calling by political leaders on the election trail, and contrast this with the plight of farmers in key areas, and we know something is rotten, in the state of Denmark,...er, India. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh deserves some brownie points for reminding his successor Narendra Modi that his language to boost the BJP does not fit well with the dignity of the prime minister's chair. Dr Singh even admits that he should not have used a word like "disaster" while talking of what Modi's rule ahead of the 2014 election. But his own party colleagues are not exactly excellent in their name-calling pursuits in a supposed attempt to revive the fortunes of the Indian National Congress.
While Modi invokes the name of 'naamdar' to hit at the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, he forgets that the family's leaders have won repeated endorsements from Indian voters, set up IITs and IIMs, won wars and brought in the green and white revolutions to boost grain and milk production in the country. Above all, one from the family went to jail for India's independence and two were killed in political assassinations.
However, Congress leader CP Joshi, instead of underlining such positive factors, says Modi as a low-caste person has no right to talk about Hinduism because he is not a Brahmin. That goes against the Congress party's claims to create an egalitarian social order. Party colleague Raj Babbar compares the falling value of the rupee against the US dollar to the age of Modi's mother, taking his own value lower than that of the currency he is speaking of!
Vilasrao Muttemwar says "nobody knows the name of Modi's father," forgetting that this is a civilisation that venerates Satyakama Jabala from the Chandogya Upanishad, who is considered of high moral character because he was honest enough to admit he did not know who his father was!
Modi has been called 'chaiwala' in a derogatory tone by Congress leaders like Mani Shankar Aiyar, while pro-Congress columnists in defence eagerly point out to references by BJP's Subramanian Swamy and Paresh Rawal describing Sonia Gandhi as a barmaid. About Modi being called Feku and Rahul Gandhi being called Pappu on social media, the less said the better.
Tamil Nadu has had its history of saree-pulling and name-calling to prove that down south, the politics of language may be different from that of the north, but the language of politics is not!
Those jibe-filled moments would have been better spent discussing procurement prices or credit for farmers, jobs for youths and why Kashmir continues to burn despite efforts by all parties.
Low-level speeches insult the intelligence of the average Indian citizens, belittle the pride that achievers like scientists, artists, engineers and sportspeople bring to the nation and most important of all, shift the political discourse away from the legitimate differences on ideology and issues to one where the visibly crass lead the assumedly dumb into a democratic dystopia.
Perhaps more significant, abusive language that points towards lineage and personal beliefs goes against the vision of building a meritocratic, egalitarian India where issues and principles are discussed more than cheap references to biological origins of leaders. We are doing badly enough in having to commemorate 26 November as a day of terrorist attacks in Mumbai than the one on which we gave to ourselves our democratic constitution. But that can be blamed on circumstances. Crass political speeches are self-inflicted wounds on the republic that promises freedom, justice and other such noble virtues of public order.
Some commentators say personal jibes end up making heroes of the targets, and Rahul Gandhi may gain votes from BJP's barbs just like Modi gained from Congress insults. In a world of what I call consumer goods politics that thrive on building brands by hook or by crook, one might well agree with that, but I do believe there is a moral case to raise the standard of politics. More important, burning issues such as jobs, health, poverty and education may be more effective in connecting voters with real issues than jibes on lineage. That would bring ideology and policies above name-calling and cheap shots.