Small note on a big problem

I was checking the news just now, and noticed that Parliament is in ferment over Narendra Modi’s December 10 speech in Palanpur, wherein he accused his predecessor Manmohan Singh of colluding with Pakistan to impact the outcome of the Gujarat elections.

It was a particularly low point in an election cycle that was one depressing low after another. Even for Modi, a terminal liar who in pursuit of his ends will slander anyone and devalue any institution, this attack on Singh was unconscionable. (There is also the sheer illogic of it — if, in fact, the Prime Minister of this country believes that senior politicians were colluding with an enemy nation to thwart the democratic process in India, he should have ordered an inquiry into it and, if proof were found, meted out exemplary punishment. To not do so is at the very least a dereliction of duty.)

Modi — more so because he is no ordinary campaigner but the prime minister of this country — needs to be held to account for his words. Which is why I am glad the opposition decided to raise the issue in Parliament.

Modi is, typically, missing. And it is left to Arun Jaitley to try to mend fences. In Parliament, he said he will meet with opposition leaders to “find a solution” to the issue. And it turns out that he is now meeting with two senior Congress leaders to that end.

I am no fan of Parliament being disrupted. Bad enough our elected representatives spend precious little time on governance; if even the few sittings they do have result in no work being done, it is a shocking waste of both the public money and the public trust. And the argument that the opposition of today is merely doing unto the BJP what the BJP had done not so long ago — made here by Shashi Tharoor, citing chapter and verse — does not wash because public service should be about setting standards, not competing to see who can lower them most.

But this one time I hope the opposition holds firm; I hope they refuse to accept nothing less than a personal appearance by the PM in Parliament to explain his remarks. Modi needs to understand that he cannot vitiate the atmosphere at will and then hide from the consequences; to permit that is to enable the sort of behavior that has no place in this or any democracy.

Facts don’t matter, argued my friend Amit Varma in an excellent editorial recently in which he explained why so many of us are so willing to swallow the lies that are fed to us. But they do — facts matter, always have, always will. And there is nothing quite so dangerous as a fact-free prime minister who is willing to malign anyone, to go around the country with a can of petrol and a match, lighting up any person or institution in pursuit of his own selfish agenda.

I hope like hell the opposition doesn’t let this go. Not to score political points, but to make a larger point — that we expect, have the right to expect, honesty and integrity from our leaders. Starting at the very top.

PostScript: A trait I admire is grace — in both victory and defeat. It is not a trait one looks for in the contemporary politician, though. Sample this comment by a senior leader:

It takes me back to what Amit said in his editorial:

All the ugliness in our politics today is the ugliness of the human condition. This is how we are. This is not a perversion of democracy but an expression of it. Those of us who are saddened by it — the liberal elites, libertarians like me — have to stop feeling entitled, and get down to work. The alt-right guru Andrew Breitbart once said something I never get tired of quoting: “Politics is downstream from Culture.” A political victory will now not come until there is a social revolution. Where will it begin?

This relentless trafficking in venom? It is on us.

Post-PostScript: On a tangentially related note, Amit Varma and I had some free time on the sidelines of the recent Bangalore Literary Festival, and ended up doing an impromptu chat on the state of the media.

Here it is. Please listen, and send in comments, queries, suggestions — we hope to do a more structured follow up soon, and hearing your thoughts and comments will help us focus on what you want to hear about.