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The level of public discourse in India

It is a by word that gets quoted often, whenever an insolent or uncivil remark is made by a Politician, to say that this is a “new low in public discourse” in India. “Public Discourse” is a favorite term for the intelligentsia, meant to indicate the general topics or themes that they are themselves are discussing, which in many cases those from the rest of the country can sparsely relate to.  They look down from their Ivory towers and snobbishly complain about the “state of public discourse in India”.

An astute observer may see that most of these complaints are about the Bharathiya Janta Party and its leaders.

Sample this Livemint Editorial:

“The Gujarat election campaign has been ugly, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has escalated the bitterness in his speeches. Sharp verbal sparring has long been a feature of Indian politics, but Modi has crossed a red line by insinuating that his political rivals are working against India’s national interest. His remarks do not do justice to the constitutional position he holds. The opposition has also called Modi ugly names. Few will forget Sonia Gandhi’s unacceptable maut ka saudagar (merchant of death) remark. Mani Shankar Aiyar is a serial offender—and his most recent remark is part of a pattern. Tej Pratap Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal crossed all boundaries of decency when he threatened to skin Modi alive. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may argue that Modi is merely giving it back, but the prime minister of the country has to adhere to higher standards of conduct than others.” “The political discourse in India is plumbing new depths one election campaign after another. No party has a clean record, and the BJP has actively contributed to the degeneration.” “The Prime Minister should realize that no election victory is worth undermining the quality of Indian democracy”

There is a lot to be said here, but when was Indian political discourse polite and constructive? And why would any politician and political party hold back when their opponents say unflattering things about them? If those things mattered to the Indian Public enough, the politicians and parties would modify their behavior. Politicians cannot stand without the support of the public. Their personalities and traits are that which are by their own choice, acceptable to the public. Politicians and their actions are accurate reflections of the interests of groups/communities.

Then there are the legend who wrote to The Telegraph with the realization that the average Indian absolutely hates Pakistan:

The dominant emotion was one of seeking revenge. Is this not terrifying? Those amongst us who dared to speak up and point out that an eye for an eye will only leave the world blind were threatened as well. Is this any less scary? So much poison has been injected into the public discourse that even teenage boys — receiving education in reputed schools — are beginning to sound like fanatics.

The BJP is also guilty of using ‘the public discourse’ argument, as can be seen here.(“Rahul Gandhi’s remark new low in Public discourse”). It seems we hit a new ‘low’ every other week.  One wonders when the mythical high of public discourse in India was.

Another way to mop over public discourse is to say that Twitter and other social media contributed to decay in ‘public discourse‘:


The inevitable truth is that the democratization of ‘public discourse’ has spawned content and discussion like never before, and those who were so far in ‘the know’ would certainly be uncomfortable with  such a development. Will it throw up unpleasant and abhorrent content? Yes. Does social media facilitate impersonal interaction that leads to harassment and more? Yes. Those results are definite. But on the whole, if one believes that democracy is good, then the democratization of public discourse is good.

There are too many moving parts and conversations in a large country like ours, and it would hard to pin any single “grand conversation” per se. To evaluate the level of ‘public discourse’ in my opinion, is a problematic proposition, one that has no proper end. Do politicians say crap? All the time. Should you call them out on it? Go Ahead. Don’t expect to be listened to, though. More importantly, don’t pretend that we’ve ‘hit a new low’ with the latest remark.


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