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Debased politics

Business Standard  |  New Delhi 

The unedifying exchange of words between Narendra Modi and Sonia Gandhi, the subsequent indignation all round and the interventions by the Election Commission and the Supreme Court have led to much debate. There is good reason to be incensed that a sitting chief minister should get a crowd to shout in favour of extra-judicial killings, as though there is no law in this land. This goes well beyond the specifics of any law that the Supreme Court and Election Commission can use, it goes to the fundamentals of what kind of society the country wants. Mr Modi says in his defence that Sonia Gandhi provoked him by referring to his government as one of liars and merchants of death. Perhaps, and there is sometimes a harshness to Ms Gandhi's campaigning that gets to the edges of civil debate. But even if provoked, is that justification for Mr Modi's campaign excess?
The problem of course is that extra-judicial killings are not confined to Gujarat, so this is not a Modi-specific problem. Fake "encounters" have been routine in virtually every troubled region, whether it is Punjab, Jammu & Kashmir, Nagaland, Kolkata in its Naxalite days and the Naxal-ridden belt even today. By and large, it is fair to say that Indian civil society has been willing to go along with this state of affairs, and the only explanation can be that when nationhood and the settled Constitutional system are challenged by those who step outside the pale, then people are willing to allow a "bullet for bullet" approach. While this is difficult enough to swallow "" and it is a good policy to imagine yourself on the other side of the gun "" what makes Gujarat worse than all the other states listed here is that it does not face a challenge to the established system, and yet those assembled at an election rally are willing to endorse lawless killings by the police. How Mr Modi should think that this attitude is a matter of Gujarati pride is even harder to understand outside a fascist framework.
When one debates the basics, it is also relevant to ask why different rules are applied when identity politics is based on religion and when it is based on caste. Thus, for the purpose of applying the law about fomenting disaffection between communities, why are communities defined in one way where religion is used and another when caste is used? The acceptance of one brand identity politics but not of another has resulted in emasculated institutions. The level of proof required to prove a case is high and thus the laws for meting out punishment are weak. It has therefore become possible for hate-mongers "" caste-wise or religion-wise "" to carry on with impunity and virtual immunity. Even when the evidence stares them in the face, they are left with no option but take the lenient rather than the strict view. This has happened several times, both in front of the Election Commission and the courts. What is worse, caste has become central to political discourse in a way that it seems the normal way to conduct politics.

First Published: Wed, December 12 2007. 00:00 IST