No political party is free from the habit of lies and tasteless abuse during election campaigns, not even Mr Vajpayee’s own Bharatiya Janata Party
Political culture is a contradiction in terms in India. There is no culture in Indian politics. The prime minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, has every reason to be irate with the Congress campaign in Madhya Pradesh which describes him as a beef-eater. The epithet is objectionable not only because it is a lie but also because Mr Vajpayee’s dietary habits and preferences should have nothing to do with political life. It has acquired a relevance because in India, politics has become imbricated with religion, and lies and calumny have become part of election campaigning. No political party is free from this particular vice, not even Mr Vajpayee’s own, the Bharatiya Janata Party. It will be recalled how the BJP attempted to make political capital out of Ms Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origins. Even before that, while campaigning on the Bofors issue, it was put out that Rajiv Gandhi was a thief only on the basis of certain allegations. It has become an expected practice to abuse and personally attack candidates. In terms of historical record, it should perhaps be fair to point out that the use of calumny for electoral purposes was started by the communists. People in West Bengal, of a certain age, will recall the kind of unsubstantiated charges of corruption that communists brought against old Congress leaders like Prafulla Sen and Atulya Ghosh. Both leaders, in fact, lived in penury after their retirement from politics. More appalling was the ridicule Ghosh was exposed to because he was visually impaired. Again, the attack based on this kind of utter bad taste was authored by the communists.
The other aspect that is inimical to the maturing of a political culture is the way religion and caste are used in political mobilization. In this, the Congress has to bear the responsibility of casting the first stone. It began the process of nurturing vote-banks; the process was mastered and made into a fine art under Indira Gandhi. She was also not averse to the use of slander and innuendo for political purposes. Her campaign against the Syndicate in the Congress was often articulated in such an idiom. Other parties followed suit. And now things have come to such a pass that there are caste-based parties like the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party; there are regional parties like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam; and there are parties based on religion, like the BJP. All this would suggest that despite more than five decades of democracy, political culture has not progressed. In fact, it has regressed since the time of Jawaharlal Nehru.
It is possible to argue, of course, that this regression is related to the spread of democracy in India. Large sections of the people, uneducated in the democratic ethos, have entered political society. This has strengthened political society and has given democracy deeper routes, but it has certainly not enriched political culture. Quantity in this case has changed quality for the worse. Moreover, veteran politicians who have spent a lifetime in electoral politics have not been above the use of calumny and personal abuse.