Decency in politics? It's not the politicians' fault, it's our responsibility as voters

Ananya Shroff
8 Min Read

Souvik Chakraborty : Can civility or decency return to Indian politics? This is an urgent question. An often asked question. And, despite all our good intentions, it is an elusive question. When we say or write 'civilisation', we usually mean one or more of the following. Politeness, being respectful, having good manners, speaking softly, not arguing too much. But 'civilisation' – from the Latin root 'civus' – demands much more from us than namaste and smiles. 'Civus' is Latin for city or public place. As an analysis by the Hannah Arendt Centre points out, 'the practice of civility is the practice of being a citizen.' To be 'civil' means to go beyond your private persona and be a 'public person' – a person with rights.

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Humility is a political virtue

Therefore, civility is deeply connected to politics. It is a 'political virtue that upholds the political ideal that despite our differences and plurality, we can relate to each other as citizens.' Therefore, politics is uncivil when we, even our politicians, cannot relate to each other, simply because we cannot agree on important issues. If politicians greet each other politely in the Central Hall of Parliament, but in public space, they try to destroy each other's organisations, or dismiss every issue raised by their rivals, then politics is uncivil. Even if the destruction or exclusion is cloaked in politeness.

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Differences in choice

That's an important difference, and it came across in these elections. Many of India's talkative class were – rightly – frustrated by shrill election rhetoric and bitter personal attacks. In contrast, many of India's poorer class voters were more concerned by the prospect that their constitutional rights – especially reservations – were allegedly under threat. Poor Indians instinctively understood what uncivil politics meant – politics that could potentially threaten the rights of citizens. Politics that says, 'If we win big, we don't have to listen to anyone, negotiate with anyone, especially those who don't agree with us.'

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The question of the return of civilization

So, when we, the elite, ask whether civility can be brought back to politics, what we should really be demanding is not polite, witty speeches and drawing room decorum during election campaigns (‘on the stump’, for those readers who prefer the American version). We should be demanding a politics that does not see engagement with rival politicians as weakness. That does not see the existence of rival politicians as an insult. That embraces the true concept of citizenship – to belong to the same place, we do not need to be the same.

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Meaning of Mohan Bhagwat's speech

When RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat recently said that the opposition is not an adversary, he was talking about true civility in politics. Of course, many 'liberals' asked what Bhagwat's comment was really about – he also spoke against 'arrogance'. But that's fine – as long as 'liberals' don't dismiss Bhagwat because he is from the RSS. Liberals, and their sometimes close, sometimes distant cousins, the Left, can be rude in their politics. Just as the Right can be. True, the Right in a democracy is often rude. But Left-liberals are no novices.

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What is polite and rude in a democracy?

Politics for a ‘Hindu nation’, even if it is done with impeccable humility, is uncivil in a religiously plural democracy. Similarly, politics that is done with humility and does not engage with those who claim to speak for the majority is uncivil. Politics that says Israel can do anything in Gaza and Rafah – because Hamas started it – is uncivil. Similarly, politics that says Israel, a rare democracy in West Asia, should be condemned as a nation, and Israelis, many of whom are staunch critics of Netanyahu, should be stigmatised as a nation. Once we understand what civility or decency means in politics, the answer to the question we have asked – can civility return to Indian politics – is much more complex. It involves a reboot: politics is first about responsibility (towards people) and recognition (of differences), and then about winning and losing.

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Will the politicians embrace the change?

Can such a change happen naturally? Will politicians admit, oh my god, we are so rude, this shouldn't happen. If you think so, your optimism is misplaced. More likely, politicians in a democracy will respond to the one thing they think about all the time – votes. If the election results show that enough voters dislike rude politics, or more realistically dislike exceptionally rude politics, then politicians might get the message, or some version of it. If we analyze the 2024 elections closely and from different angles, the conclusion is clear: the result is that voters have taught the rude politician a lesson.

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Message from voters

If politicians decide to accept the true meaning of this verdict, a new change is possible. Not in a perfect way, of course. Never expect that in politics. But there will still be a clear change. But politicians may decide not to accept it. Partly perhaps because they cannot even think about it. And partly perhaps because power breeds selective amnesia. The grandeur of political office can erase memories of those moments when a narrative built forever on assumptions of electoral infallibility fell apart. So what then? Simple. It is up to us voters. We must send the message again and again to the party that is guilty of bad politics – until the message hits home.

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