Rarely, if ever, was logic so distant from ethics in political discourse in India. From ad hominem and tu quoque to theatre, it’s been a steady natural progression.
With Bharatiya Janata Party leaders slamming the Opposition for raising the lynching issue, decibel levels scaled a new peak. BJP MP Meenakshi Lekhi, on 24 July, termed those flaying the government on the issue as “hypocrites.” Typically, she went on to mention the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and the alleged “lynching of kar sevaks” in 2002, as if there were some cause-and-effect relationship between the two deplorable events years ago and the ongoing lynching cases. Earlier, several hugely unparliamentary phrases were used by the Congress Party to describe the Prime Minister himself.
The name of the game is tu quoque, a most perverse form of argumentation that is being employed with such insolence by so many parties these days. Merriam-Webster defines tu quoque as “a retort charging an adversary with being or doing what he criticises in others”. In common parlance, this is called “whataboutery”. You are shocked by the lynching of Rakbar Khan in Alwar; but what about, as Lekhi said, the murder of a Dalit man in Rajasthan for marrying a Muslim girl?
This passing of the verbal buck has been going on for quite some time. Till recently, it was mostly used to deflect the charges of corruption, something as “your scam is bigger than mine”: You talk about Vyapam but what about 2G? I am bad but you are worse than I. In effect, therefore, I am good, and surely better than you. QED.
Rarely, if ever, was logic so distant from ethics in political discourse in India.
But the public discourse in India suddenly didn’t become replete with what-about statements. The invasion of tu quoque was gradual; the ground was prepared by the slow but steady entrenchment of argumentum ad hominem, whose more degenerate form tu quoque is.
Ad hominem is about attacking the arguer rather than the argument. A few illustrations: If somebody favours liberalisation and foreign investment, they are accused as being a stooge of big business and multinational corporations; if somebody says that the draconian Section 498A be removed as it is unjust and open to abuse, they are denounced for being anti-women, misogynist, etc.
It is interesting to note here while Left-liberals are castigating the Sangh Parivar for the spate of lynching and the latter is taking recourse to both ad hominem and tu quoque, the former employed both tactics to devastating effect in the past. In fact, it would not be inappropriate to say that the Right is paying the Left back in the same currency—or, to use an un-Hindu idiom, it is a case of miyaan ki jooti miyaan ke sar.
Not long ago, BJP leaders were beyond the pale in the Left’s scheme of things—the only scheme that mattered. Anything BJP politicians said or stood for was “communal”, “divisive”, “bigoted”, etc. Even the most soft-spoken gents like Atal Behari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani were regularly hauled over the coals by Left-liberals who lorded over the public discourse. The statements they made, the agenda they pursued—everything they said and did was trashed not because the fellow-travellers found fault in their arguments but because the BJP was communal, majoritarian and fascistic. There was no tolerance of the views not in consonance with mainstream (which was Left-liberal) thinking; there was no respect—indeed there was only disdain—for those who expressed alternative opinion. The Left was always right and the Right always wrong. Reason had a very little role to play in debate.
But now the boot is on the other foot; today the Right is replete with might and the Left has been rendered irrelevant. Ruling ideologies have changed but not their shenanigans. Intolerance of the adversarial viewpoint and disdain for adversary persist. Reason still has very little role to play in debate.
Cow vigilantism continues. Media outcry, public outrage, admonition by the Supreme Court—nothing matters. A few days ago, a three-judge Bench headed by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra said such lynching cases had to be curbed with an iron hand. It directed the Centre and states to implement its order and file compliance reports. “Horrendous acts of mobocracy cannot be tolerated… It cannot be allowed to become a new norm. It has to be curbed with an iron hand,” said the Bench, which also included Justices A.M. Khanwilkar and D.Y. Chandrachud. In NewsX, Professor Madhav Nalapat called upon lynching to be treated as acts of terror and dealt with accordingly.
Unfortunately, despite such warnings, nothing has changed. BJP leaders and saffron cowboys continue to make deplorable statements; and state governments seem either helpless or insouciant about murderous mobs. The killing of Rakbar Khan at Alwar in Rajasthan is testimony to that.
Meanwhile, the Opposition too is busy in scoring abusive brownie points and deriving political mileage out of the violence unleashed by self-appointed cow protectors. Congress president Rahul Gandhi, for one, is more focused on theatrics—hug, wink, et al—than on any cogency of arguments and eloquence of oratory. At any rate, in the age of ad hominem and tu quoque, who listens to debate anyway?
From ad hominem and tu quoque to theatre, it’s been a steady and almost natural progression. What does this say about the state of our politics?