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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 45, November 1, 2014

Is Winning Elections all that matters in Democracy? What about Values and the Rules of Conduct?

Sunday 2 November 2014, by T J S George


For a pregnant Sunday morning, only hours before history opens a new page, some timely queries: Is the NCP a Naturally Corrupt Party as Narendra Modi says it is? Is Narendra Modi lowering the dignity of prime ministership by resorting to cheap electioneering as Sharad Pawar says he is? Has the BJP betrayed Hindutva by ditching the Shiv Sena as Uddhav Thackeray says it has? Is Modi a street-level operator as the Congress says he is?

Elections are the feather on India’s democratic cap, but the electioneering style of our leaders and parties often turn the cap into a crown of dishonour. In the last election, a Congress spokesman called Modi Yamaraj. Sonia Gandhi had called him a merchant of death. Karnataka’s Deve Gowda once called B.S. Yeddyurappa a b...d. Degradation reached its nadir when Congress spokesman Manish Tiwari described Anna Hazare in 2011 as "corrupt from head to toe". He didn’t stop at that. Addicted to bombastic language, he called Anna Hazare’s associates "armchair fascists, overground Maoists, closet anarchists funded by invisible donors". Tragic fellow, he had to swallow every one of those words later.

Electioneering is not meant to go below the belt. In fact its central principle is respect for opponents and dignified conduct in both action and words. Candidates explain their position on various issues, and then leave it to voters to make their choice as they deem fit. One political figure who strictly adhered to this principled approach was V.K. Krishna Menon. Honed by prolonged exposure to politics in St. Pancras, London, where he was a popularly elected Borough Councillor for several years, his campaigns in Bombay never saw an adverse remark against his opponents, even when the opponents attacked him personally.

In Maharashtra this time personal attacks were the norm. Actually they were not necessary in the light of a clear shift in the BJP’s strategy. There was no Amit Shah domination in Maharashtra, there was only Narendra Modi. There was no Yogi Adityanath, there was only Narendra Modi. There was no love jihad, no Muzaffarnagar, there was only Narendra Modi. Modi’s mass appeal combined with the imbecilities of rival parties to put the stars on Modi’s side. The NCP projected the horror of the widely disliked Ajit Pawar becoming the Chief Minister; the Shiv Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray showed immaturity by insisting on the Chief Minister’s nomination in advance unlike his smarter father who wanted the remote control firmly in his hand; the other bash-Biharis Sena outraged even the Election Commission by saying that non-Marathis wouldn’t be allowed to enter Mumbai; and the Congress is still trying to figure out what’s going on. Yes, the stars are on Modi’s side.

In the long term, though, it is a question of culture. Politics diminishes the cultural worth of its practitioners. The need for votes is so overwhelming that morality becomes irrelevant. This is true of the supposedly mature demo-cracies as well. It is part of political folklore that the 1960 US presidential race was decided by television. In the TV debate John Kennedy appeared cool and well-groomed while Richard Nixon looked unshaved and sweating. Both had cheated behind the cameras. There was an agreement that they would not use make-up for the programme. But Kennedy had a team of professionals to put on a layer of make-up. Nixon used a common product called Lazy Shave to conceal his 5 o’clock shadow—with little effect. Nixon was known to sweat easily, so his team kept the studio thermostats down. Kennedy’s team secretly raised the temperature. Kennedy won.

Such tactics touched an alltime low in the George Bush years. In the primaries in 2000 the clean and upright John McCain was a formidable opponent, campaigning with a Bangladeshi daughter he had adopted from Mother Teresa’s

orphanage. George Bush’s campaign strategists conducted a phony poll asking people: Would you vote for John McCain if you knew that he had fathered an illegitimate black child? That was the end of McCain’s campaign. The victorious Bush went on to ruin Iraq and give an unprecedented fillip to the growth of terrorism in the world.

The moral is clear. What ultimately matters is not this party or that leader, but what happens to the quality of democracy. In the first quarter century of independence elections enhanced our democracy. After the Emergency, it has been down hill because the culture changed. First-past-the-post became literally the watchword, no matter what tactics were used. Winning alone mattered, morality be damned.

How will it be from now on?