A Sobering Thought

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing awkward questions about the money spent on the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat in London following allegations from his former chief advisor that he had an “unethical, foolish, possibly illegal” plan to get Conservative Party donors to pay for it. The opposition has been quick to latch on to the issue which might snowball into a full-blown political controversy unless the Prime Minister clears the air convincingly. The British public, too, is quite unforgiving in such matters and believes that everything should be open and above board. As Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who has urged Johnson to come clean on the issue, put it “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

The purpose of citing this latest political scandal in Britain is to highlight the fact that in functional democracies the conduct of the top political executives is not only under constant watch but they can also be criticized openly and freely by the Opposition as well as the people who elect them. Is it possible to do so in today’s India without getting heavily trolled on social media or threatened with physical harm by the “chelas” of those in power? What is worse, intolerance of criticism exists even within parties that are not in power. Top leaders of these parties, some of which have ruled at the Centre as well as in states, flare up at the slightest suggestion of criticism. In short, they believe they can do no wrong.

This is hubris of the worst kind but unfortunately for all of us the current political discourse in the country is characterized by this growing intolerance of opinion which has also led to an alarming fall in the standards of public behavior. Political debates these days frequently degenerate into slanging matches and social media has become a tool for spewing venom against opponents. Limits of decent political behavior are being crossed with alarming regularity and some of the comments on Twitter have been numbingly insensitive. Sample this one by a BJP leader from Bihar who commented on the death of CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury’s son Ashish Yechury. “Chinese supporter CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury’s son Ashish Yechury dies from Chinese Corona,” tweeted this former MLA who was forced to delete the crass comment in the wake of a severe backlash on the social media.

Things have come to such a pass that even senior leaders holding responsible positions appear to be fighting shy of maintaining public decorum while responding to perceived political opponents with scant regard for the stature of the person being targeted. The response that former Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh’s recent letter advising the Centre on COVID management drew from the usually mild-mannered health minister Harsh Vardhan has not gone down well with a large number of people cutting across party lines. Tweeting his response, Harsh Vardhan said, “History shall be kinder to you Dr Manmohan Singh ji if your offer of ‘constructive cooperation and valuable advice was followed by your @INCIndia leaders as well in such extraordinary times!” tweeted BJP’s “ good doctor ” but the reply left leaders across parties stunned. One would certainly have expected a more polite and decorous reply from the country’s health minister to the suggestions made by a former Prime Minister who has the reputation of being a thorough gentleman and a scholar.

Things are pretty bad on both sides of the political divide at the moment. Political recriminations take no time to turn into public brawls and boasting is the new form of propaganda. A case in point is how the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) is trying to make the most of the bail granted to its president and former Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav by the Jharkhand High Court in the fodder scam case, paving the way for his release from jail. The order of the court has led to a lot of chest-thumping within the RJD and the supporters of Lalu appear to be projecting the bail as proof of his innocence in the case. True the return of the Yadav strongman to active politics in Bihar will make RJD stronger but the case against him is far from over.

In the vitiated political atmosphere of today expecting parties and their leaders to exercise restraint and maintain at least a semblance of decorous behavior in public is perhaps asking for too much. That’s a sobering thought!

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