Uncivil Liberties

July 29, 2013 7:45 am by

In a recent article in The Telegraph, writer Mukul Kesavan quite decisively put an end to the stale argument that the Congress is no better than the BJP because of its pogrom against Sikhs in 1984. The difference between the two is that the Congress is “a pluralist party that is opportunistically communal while the BJP is an ideologically communal (or majoritarian) party that is opportunistically ‘secular’,” wrote Kesavan. This is why it’s not unnatural for the Congress to have a Sikh prime minister. On the other hand the BJP with a Muslim at its helm would not work, Kesavan says, even as “a thought experiment”.

Parties might be ideologically different from each other but if there’s one opportunity that they all take, it’s the opportunity to violently slam criticism. Physical force, they seem to believe, is so much more effective for getting your point across than merely talking. Take the case of Aditi, the restaurant in Parel that was forced to shut by Congress workers on Monday, July 22 because its bills carried the owner Srinivas Shetty’s rather low opinion of the ruling party: “As per UPA govt eating money (2G, coal, CWG scam) is a necessity and eating food in an AC restaurant is a luxury.”

Like many restaurant owners, Shetty is miffed about the 5 per cent service tax that the government has been imposing on all air-conditioned eateries since April. Previously only air-conditioned restaurants serving liquor were required to pay the tax. Not satisfied with Shetty’s apology and the erasure of the message from the bills, Congress workers talked of getting the BMC to raze the restaurant’s supposedly illegal structures. While that hasn’t happened yet, Aditi opened the following day to a queue of patrons eager to get their hands on the opinionated bill.

Funnily enough, Congress workers behaved badly just days after a party conference in Delhi at which Rahul Gandhi advised his colleagues who spar with the Opposition on social media to not “go beyond the party line and keep the debate dignified and decent”. A debate however involves the participation of two or more parties and a back and forth of arguments and counter arguments. But where’s the debate when one party is silenced? Politicians are happy to engage with each other on television, in the press and, most recently, on Twitter, which is the theatre of entertaining duels between the more outspoken netas such as Manish Tewari, Narendra Modi and Sushma Swaraj. Recently Congress spokesperson Tewari challenged Modi to a debate on governance after the Gujarat chief minister criticised the UPA government’s performance. But the Congress dashed hopes of a clash between Modi and Rahul Gandhi who, either out of reticence or lack of confidence, remains conspicuously absent from public disputes.

Politicians are less enthusiastic when it comes to debating with the public at large. As has often been the case, when a critical opinion has been expressed authorities have responded by attempting to silence the voice. The shutting down of Aditi is the latest in a long train of similar incidents. Remember Aseem Trivedi who was charged with sedition for his anti-government cartoons? How about Shaheen Dhada and Rinu Srinivasan, or the Facebook girls as they’ve come to be known, who are still in the news for being arrested for a harmless comment on the bandh that followed Bal Thackeray’s funeral? Modi, who Tweeted that the Congress’s revenge against the owners of Aditi smacked of “intolerance” reacted in the most intolerant way possible in 2002 by allowing right-wing Hindus to massacre Muslims. Mamata Banerjee has repeatedly dismissed criticism as left-wing conspiracy to undermine her government. And the State has made it easier than ever to clamp down on dissent with IT laws that allow it to harass those who criticise it on the Internet.

All political parties enforce their agendas with the help of ground-level cadre. Some like the Shiv Sena and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena are premised on violence; they’re not interested in debate, dignified or otherwise. Then there are parties like the Congress that profess democratic ideals but behave, to paraphrase Kesavan, opportunistically undemocratic when it suits them. If Rahul Gandhi is really serious about keeping the debate dignified, perhaps he should hold a similar conclave for his ground-level party workers.