Mumbai Mirror
Ajit Ranade
Must politics be so divisive?
Voters que up at a polling booth during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in Mumbai
One last look at the bewildering multi-polarity of Maharashtra Assembly elections before the big day.

Have you seen the Hindi movie where the lawyers fight tooth and nail in court? "My Lord, my learned colleague, is totally misleading this court. His client, the accused is a cruel and heartless murderer." To which the defence lawyer says, "My Lord, I wish my learned friend not resort to emotional drama. My client has been framed by the seductive and wily plaintiff", etc etc. After a bitter battle and courtroom drama, the lawyers retire to their chambers, or club, and have a drink together. Much bonhomie in the evening, in contrast to harsh words in court. This is not just in movies, Hindi or Hollywood, but in real life too. Such is the tradition and way how courtroom debates and diatribes work.

Mahatma Gandhi, himself a barrister, was bitterly opposed to British rule. But he famously said, hate the British rule, not the British. Hate colonialism, not the colonialist. When he visited Lacashire textile workers in 1931 he faced hostile opposition from the factory workers, who had been in economic depression. Gandhi was there to explain why Indians were going to boycott British good, causing harm to those textile workers.

With Gandhi's articulate explanation, about how British policies were hurting India, the animosity turned to friendship, and the same workers and their families, became Gandhi's friends and supporters. The poor workers and mill owners even donated money for India's cause of independence.

One is reminded of these examples in light of the bitterly divisive political campaigning for Maharashtra's Assembly. The Yuti (union) has broken, and the Aghadi (front) is "Bighadi". Voters are being wooed by so many parties, one can almost lose count. But the campaigning is not based on a competing vision for Maharashtra, India's second largest state.

The state contributes 15% of India's industrial production, but its growth is slowing down. The intra-state inequality is extremely worrying. Only 3 districts out of 35 account for close to 45% of state's total income. Sugarcane crop, the bedrock of Maharashtra's political economy, uses 3% of the land but consumes 60% of the water of this water parched state. The state faces the ignominy of water tankers and farmer suicides. Water tankers are used even in Konkan region, which gets abundant rainfall. The state's debt is more than 3 lakh crores.

Instead of presenting the voters with solutions and concrete, achievable goals and timelines, the political parties and candidates are engaging in mudslinging, personal name calling, and almost defamatory language. Of course each of the major parties has some vision statement, or a blueprint for development, but that is barely mentioned, or given prominence.

Why should politics be so bitterly divisive and border on personal defamation? Most of the appeals are emotional in nature. Politicians do not even hesitate to play up imaginary fears and anxieties. Just get the blood pressure worked up, and let people vote in a feverish atmosphere marred by communal tension, xenophobia, and heightened sense of insecurity. With a four or five way contest, and 50% voting, just garnering 12 to 15% vote, is enough to guarantee a victory. So focusing and stirring wildly feelings of irrationality, jingoism, at least till the voting day, seems to be the strategy.

It does not have to be this way. Democratic discourse doesn't mean demeaning the opponent, ad hominem attacks, 'unparliamentary' language, appeal to the lowest denominator of caste, religion or creed. No wonder the Election Commission is kept busy trying to weed out divisive and hate speeches. The EC's job is made even more difficult because they also need to monitor paid news, bribery of voters and other electoral malpractice. Where will the EC have the time or energy to promote positive values: participate in debates, spread voter awareness, arrange meet-your-candidate meetings, make them sign manifestos, hold them accountable?

We hope that voters will at least remain immune to divisive politics and vote with their conscience, wisdom and foresight.

Happy voting on Wednesday!

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