Epidemic of hysteria

Elections provide moments of ambush that become moments of surprise. At one moment, a person stands with all his credentials intact and in a split second something changes. Such an event happened on Wednesday in Hyderabad.

A crowd of about 900 odd people was waiting patiently. The electronic voting machine had stalled the voting for an hour, but the queues during election season bear a sense of festival of a civic duty; citizens do not mind waiting.
Suddenly one saw a VIP descend from a car wearing sunglasses. He was accompanied by his family. It was Chiranjeevi, the filmstar and politician, currently the tourism minister. He waited tentatively outside the booth. People wished him, some even suggested he move up the queue. Chiranjeevi moved jumping the queue with his family. Up to this moment it was a standard VIP situation — a celebrity or a film actor jumping the line as if it was an entitlement. A young man in the line asked Chiranjeevi if he was over 65 or disabled. He asked Chiranjeevi to get in the queue, observing sharply “I am also a VIP”.

True every citizen during voting is a VIP. An anonymous student standing in the queue made history. Chiranjeevi realised he had met his match. The public was watching keenly. Quickly and graciously, he acknowledged his mistake. He moved back into the queue sheepishly accompanied by his family. The crowd stood silent for a while surprised by what had happened and then broke into a quiet ovation. The boy waved, equally surprised.

This was a simple event with stunning consequences. A VIP stands helpless before the public, and the public instead of signalling a predictable sycophancy, claims its rights.

TV microphones zoom in on the young man delighted to see a new democracy. The student, Kartikeya, had come back from England to vote. He was firm, candid but courteous. He acknowledged that Chiranjeevi was famous and respected, but added that respect for him did not create entitlements for the family. Kartikeya did not exploit the situation. He felt what he did was right and normal but left it at that. While he stood quietly, the event went viral on TV attracting all kinds of comments.

People realised that this was the new democracy in motion not the old politics of VIPs, which we had become habituated to. It was a beautiful moment and one realised that it was rare.

The last week — in terms of election time — was ugly. Politics was vituperative and personalised. Oddly the individuals who gave it that cruel edge were Digvijaya Singh, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.

The nastiness began with Mr Singh attacking Narendra Modi for stating in his nomination paper that he was married. It was not really news because people in Gujarat knew about it. Mr Singh made it sound like a scandal; what he actually created was an obscene invasion of privacy, which Mr Gandhi echoed like a mechanical doll. What was a black box of understated privacy became a Pandora’s box.

The Bharatiya Janata Party retaliated by raising the Vadra issue warning in advance that a party (Congress) living in glasshouse should not throw stones at others. Ms Vadra, a fresh entrant into the campaign, returned fire by calling BJP leaders a bunch of rats scrambling for cover. By this time, bad behaviour became epidemic. Union minister and National Conference president Farooq Abdullah threatened that Kashmir will secede if India becomes communal. He added that Modi supporters should jump into the sea.

Earlier, BJP’s Giriraj Singh with equal silliness had suggested that Modi critics should go to Pakistan. While these mass evacuations were taking place, Mamata Banerjee dubbed Mr Modi the “butcher of Gujarat”. Lalu Prasad Yadav endorsed her. The epidemic of name-calling seemed endless. Recently Arun Jaitely, usually the suave lawyer, called Amarinder Singh uneducated, unable to understand the lawyer’s brief.

If anyone of these events were isolated, one would let it pass. Each is silly, or petty, but as each event crowds the other, what we have is an epidemic of hysteria. Suddenly candidates seemed to be gunning for each other. There was a sense of desperation, even impatience.

The crudest moment came with BJP leader Uma Bharti comparing Rakhi Sawant and Ms Vadra, hinting that both were demanding attention. The slapstick crudity of Indian politics is wide open. The event was like a chocolate-throwing contest in silent movies. What is hilarious as a slapstick phenomenon is obscene as a scenario of democracy. Democracy does not need table manners as a form of snobbery, but one needs civility and a sense of civics for democracy to grow.

What was even more disconcerting was the sudden fear and trembling that accompanied the rise of Mr Modi. Suddenly, J. Jayalalithaa, Ms Banerjee and Mayawati also got vituperative. Indian elections had become a bedlam of insults.

The spectator watching this with concern has to ask why this happens. At one level it can happen merely because candidates are tired. Others feel it is media-induced hysteria. But deep down there is a fear of an all-or-nothing battle. Politics has suddenly lost its playfulness and generosity.

The danger is that the violence of language gets compounded by the actual brutality of violence. Let us not forget that Aam Aadmi Party activists have been beaten by BJP supporters frequently. Fear, let us be clear, can no longer be taken for granted in an election. The crudities of a Sharad Pawar or a Mulayam Singh Yadav do not belong to this generation of politics. There is, however, one source of hope — our social media has created that ecology of the comic or even irreverence that bodes well for our future democracy.

Yet we have to remember that violence — symbolic or physical — corrodes democracy. I think with this election we not just have the possibilities of a different politics, but an opportunity for challenging the hypocrisy and tyranny of our time. This is a crucial moment. What the AAP began, and what Kartikeya exemplified is what India needs to follow to create a dialogic politics which respects the rival as equal and as a friend. Our elections need this ingenuity.

 

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