Narendra Modi, Lalu Prasad Yadav and Kanhaiya Kumar present a coarse populist side
The loudness and coarseness of the Lok Sabha election campaign, as part of democratic denouement, however distasteful, is unexceptionable. That Prime Minister Narendra Modi outflanks the rest of the opposition leaders in loudness and coarseness is not a fall from grace, either of Indian democracy or of Mr Modi. There is an inherent vulgarity in the speech of the demos, the common people, where subtleties and niceties get drowned. Democracy throws up dictators, and in 20th century many of the dictators have been and are democratically elected ones. The popular leader is always a dictator in disguise, and it is only the good sense of the popular leader that keeps dictatorship sheathed.
Democracy gives rise to sophisticated leaders as well as the unsophisticated ones. Jawaharlal Nehru was a sophisticated leader but he was not the norm. Mr Modi is the unsophisticated democrat, a kind of a Jacksonian – Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, who was perceived as barging into the genteel salons of power in Washington from the backwaters of Tennessee with his bare knuckles approach – democrat. It is not necessary to either admire or to give assent to Mr Modi’s underclass belligerence, but his ways cannot be described as undemocratic.
The precedents for Mr Modi’s cultivated rusticity go back to the politics of the socialist firebrand of the 1950s and 1960s, Ram Manohar Lohia. He was a sophisticated man himself, but he threw aside the sophistication and put on the rustic’s mask to identify himself with the common people of the country. Many well-meaning and well-healed folk admired the emergence of leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav as heralds of unsophistication, and they were hailed as symbols of authentic Indian democracy. Mr Modi belongs to this Lohia-inspired constellation, comprising the Yadav leaders. It was V.P.Singh, the Raja of Manda who facilitated the transition to grassroots politics in India by his decision to implement the Mandal Commission recommendations as an act of defiance when his rickety National Front government was tottering in mid-1990 and the man who had unwittingly dethroned a Nehru-Gandhi prime minister and there has not been one from the family ever since.
The well-meaning well-heeled English-speaking elite rejoiced in the Falstaffian antics of Lalu Prasad Yadav, without examining the virtues of theatric unsophistication. There is not much of a difference between Mr Yadav and Mr Modi in terms of their political vulgarity. They came from two ends of the socialist spectrum, Mr Modi from the rightist end and Mr Yadav from the Leftist end. It is indeed the case that Mr Yadav’s vulgarity was benign while the rightist vulgarity of Mr Modi stokes violent negativity among his listeners and followers. The latest entry into the vulgar club is the former JNU Students Union president Kanhaiya Kumar, whose wit and eloquence has captivated the hearts of those who once cheered Mr Yadav. Mr Yadav, Mr Modi and Mr Kumar have embraced democratic vulgarity.
Mr Modi and his praetorian guard in the party and in the outgoing government can be accused of bringing down the quality of public debate by turning it into a no-holds barred us-and-them battle where everything is done to trip Congress president Rahul Gandhi from contesting the election while standing solidly with Hindutva zealot Pragya Thakur in the Bhopal Lok Sabha constituency.
It is this vulgarity – there is nothing pejorative about vulgarity; the original Latin sense of the term denotes the ordinary people and the translation of the Bible into Latin by St. Jerome is known as The Vulgate -- of democracy that repelled Plato, and to an extent Aristotle. Unfortunately, we cannot quote the author of the Arthashastra or some other ancient Indian authority because democracy and its underlying principle of the equal rights of all in the political sphere was not prevalent in old India. It is the privilege of ancient Greece that it bravely experimented with democracy, and aristocrats like Plato did not hesitate in expressing their repulsion for its vulgar ways. It is often overlooked that it is Athenian democracy that tried Socrates for corrupting the minds of the city’s youth by criticizing the Homeric gods. In his personal political testament, so beautifully outlined in the Seventh Letter, Plato explains his inability to be part of the political scene of his day because of erratic tyrants who would not listen to him on the one side and the factionalism that dominated Athenian politics on the other, and he could not bring himself to play the intellectually unacceptable game of partisan politics. Aristotle was solidly middle class and felt that democracy – he called it polity -- is good because the clash of views among the many is better than the tyrannical sway of the views of the few. But he too did not like what he called the deviant form – he called it democracy -- which spelled the tyranny of the masses.
The haute bourgeoisie’s discomfort and dislike for Mr Modi’s vulgar politics is comparable to the horror felt by the aristocratic class in England after the Second Reform Act of 1867 which extended the voting right to the lower middle classes. There is no likelihood of Indian democracy getting back to the imagined salon decencies of the past. The coarseness and loudness is here to stay with or without Mr Modi and his friends around. In a distant future, when India becomes an advanced economy and prosperity levels improve, there could be a gentler dialogue among the politicians of diverse hues. Even in the United States, the democratic dialogue has slumped to a deplorable low with President Donald Trump unleashing belligerence in his 2016 campaign not seen since post-Civil War Yankee days. The middle class must accept the good as well as the bad that is inherent in democracy. It cannot always be ideal and decent. It turns loud and coarse. In other words, vulgar.