(Former, Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)
Indian air today is filled with politics of elections. Political discourse dominating all forms of private and public communication, there is need for maintaining a certain standard of quality in contents and decency and decorum in rendering. Unfortunately, the danger of the shallow nature of the discourse tends to override real and serious issues with free use of abusive language of communication. As a result, ideological differences are converted into group wars and personality clashes.
Political speech, formally delivered from a platform or issued as statements through various media, is a principal form of establishing political relations. Speeches constitute the contacts between parties and between politicians and citizens.
Speech-making and speech-writing are important tasks in the practice of politics as a career. There is no good speech without a good speech-writer whether both are handled by the same person or by different persons. Rhetoric matters immensely in politics particularly in election campaigns. It is an art of persuasion based on emotional appeal.
But, rhetoric cannot come without fund of information and convincing contents. A good speaker or a good writer is basically one with sound knowledge of the subject matter. Many political parties have created the post of propagandists, some of whom like Jayalalitha grew up very fast in politics. In these days of TV debates, parties have their spokespersons to explain, defend, and promote their party stand on various issues. Good spokespersons are rewarded in all parties which is evidence of the immense importance of professional political discourse bridging people and politicians.
From the classical oratory of Roman era to contemporary election speeches, the speakers and speech-writers have played a major role to link political leaders and the public.
In the multi-lingual India, the impact of speeches depends much on the ability of translators also. Political discourse in India is facing today two kinds of obstacles – one is the language problem of the speaker to communicate and interact directly with the audience, and the other, the degeneration of the vocabulary of political language to ridicule opponents in a theatrical style to retain audience interest.
Who is “chor” (thief) or who is “buffoon” are not the questions to be decided in this election. There are other forums for that. Campaigns are reduced to fancy dress competitions and slogans are raised to malign opponents. Promises are liberally extended to woo the voters.
The language of political discourse through any media matters a lot. Populist rhetoric has become the style of electoral campaigning. A new form of communication has developed for electioneering in all parties as it is a political competition to be fought on equal level with similar equipments and equal vigour.
The debate between US presidential candidates Kennedy and Nixon in 1960 is cited in textbooks as the start of effective television-age election campaigning. Visual image was believed to have an impact on the audience for good or bad. Hence, the performers are likely to be self-conscious throughout their performance. However, within a few years, serious issues began to lose their importance yielding place to emotional appeals in all democracies. Hence, visits to places of worship, exhibiting sympathy to victims of natural disasters, and taking food with slum dwellers are believed to have more political impact than offers of long-term relief measures and welfare schemes.
Surcharged emotions have resulted in personal attacks including name calling, mixing up public issues with private life to extremely low levels, and even making baseless allegations. Instead of elevating the level of political discussions so as to educate the masses to become useful participants in the political process, the discourses many a times do just the opposite.
Resulting coarseness of political discourses has affected the culture of electoral campaigning in 2019 to an extent unknown in the past. India has fallen to the growing global trend of “vituperative rancour” in political discourse and is rapidly taking a lead. Open messages that some particular people should be defeated in the election by any means have become commonly circulated advice. Negativism is the uniting factor in many places and it breeds hatred. Intolerance of opponents is the central feature of inter-party relationships between non-allies.
A new profession of campaign organizers and media managers has come up. Acclaimed expert campaign consultants are in great demand. Highly educated spokespersons are trained with necessary inputs by different parties to handle media discourses, platform speeches, and press briefings.
The purpose of political discourse during election time is in theory related to aid and advise the voters to choose their candidates. In concrete situations, it means clarifying citizens’ understanding of political issues, party positions, etc., promoting citizens’ participation in the political process, helping them to reach sound judgement between parties and candidates.
These functions can be carried out only if political discourses are conducted in an orderly manner and the participants take part with adequate and authentic information. Direct one-to-one debates between principal contenders to power are not in practice in India. Even the Lok Sabha – the forum for debates – is not fully utilised for this purpose and often converted as protest platform. Challenges are voiced for debates by leaders, but never carried out.
After years of resistance, UK introduced the practice of direct debates in 2010. When first mooted in 1964, then PM Douglas-Home dismissed it saying: “You will get the best actor as leader of the country, and the actor will be prompted by script writer”.
The Election Commission is the sole authority to make political parties comply with the basic rules of dialogue and lecture and adhere to the moral code of conduct and engage in ethical politics. For those fighting solely for power and positions, ethics is a stumbling block.
True, politics has always been personal, passionate, and contentious from the days of legends in the East and the West. Be it Mahabharata or 2019 Lok Sabha election, personalities are targets of political attack with or without basis.
The concept of “alien” is commonly used in political discourses in India today with reference to candidates and voters making a mockery of the fundamental right of all citizens to move throughout the country without any restriction. Central authority is resented by some regional parties.
The net result is replacement of the coveted “cooperative federalism” with a spirit of absolute independence fostered by rhetoric in State languages to the amusement of local audience mistaking parochial outbursts as manifestation of self-respect.
A prominent feature of political discourse in India today is the polarisation of positions. Every issue is dividing people sharply in two camps, but still there is no bi-polar contest.
The degeneration of political discourse must be immediately corrected wherever it curbs nationalism, constitutionality, orderliness, and basic ethics. No need to mention that care must be taken to safeguard rights and freedoms granted under the Constitution. As Dr. Ambedkar observed, the grammar of anarchy can never strengthen democracy; it renders democracy unfunctional.
There is an urgent need for quality control of political discourse. Control is anathema if it is external, and hence, it has to be intrinsic to the system and procedure. Unless actors want decent discourse, it cannot be externally imposed.— INFA