If one ever had any doubt about the extent to which political polarisation has swept across India, allow me to offer myself as Exhibit A. About a month ago, as a trenchant critic of the CAA/NRC project from the start – I was the first to oppose the introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Bill in Parliament – I was assailed by what was supposed to be “my own side” because I suggested that it was unwise for some Muslim protesters to raise specifically Islamic slogans, when their prospects of success lay in maintaining as broad a base of support as possible.
The issue, I said, was not about Islam as a faith, but about the constitutional rights of Indian citizens irrespective of faith. I was condemned for allegedly disrespecting Indian Muslims even though I had been, and was still, fighting for their rights.
My condolence did it
Barely had I drawn breath when a second round of condemnation came from the same quarters. This time it was because a respected veteran of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), P. Parameswaran, passed away on 9 February at the age of 93. He had been a long-time resident of Thiruvananthapuram, and therefore was a constituent of mine as his Member of Parliament (although, of course, he supported my BJP opponent in my three elections).
In common with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, but also along with Kerala’s Communist Chief Minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, and the Congress Leader of Opposition in the state assembly, Ramesh Chennithala, I expressed my condolences at Parameswaran’s passing. Since I was in Delhi for the Parliament session, I could not go to his home, as the latter two “Left liberals” did. Instead, I tweeted: “Saddened by the passing of Kerala’s veteran RSS pracharak P Parameswaran. As founder-Director of Bharatheeya VicharaKendram, he lived in Thiruvananthapuram. I met him once& we discussed many issues at length. Disagreement never involved disrespect. OmShanti”.
That’s when the proverbial dung hit the fan. Hundreds of responses flooded in on social media, accusing me of being a closet Sanghi, claiming I had revealed my “true colours” as an alleged Hindutva bigot, and parodying my condolences. Several Twitterati urged me to join the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), where, according to them, I truly belonged.
No ‘grey’ in Indian politics
I could have pointed out that I had more than 30 years of published work at odds with what the BJP and the Hindutva movement stood for, but that was irrelevant to my critics. Even logic doesn’t matter: if there ever was a time for “secret Sanghis” to come out in the open to claim multiple benefits, it was during the last six years, so why would anyone remain a “hidden sympathiser”? But so far has our polarisation gone that “Left liberals” admit of no other possibilities: one must be either for the RSS, or against the RSS. I had said kind things about a member of the “other side”, and therefore I was one of “them”.
One of the things the 20th century is supposed to have taught us is that few things in life are black and white, that much of human reality involves complex, alternating shades of grey. The one field, however, that is exempt from this simple principle is Indian politics. Our political life and discourse are the last refuge of Manichaeism, the doctrine that divided the world into mutually incompatible ideas of good and evil.
After all, what exactly had I done? I had just expressed my condolences on the demise of a 93-year-old elder, a resident of my constituency, someone I had met, a Padma Vibhushan recipient, a scholar and writer with a differing point of view. The titles of his books reveal an inquiring mind, and a well-read one: Marx and Vivekananda; From Marx to the Maharshi; Sri Aurobindo – The Philosopher of the Future; Glasnost, Perestroika and Indian Communists; Hindu faith and Indian Communism. These books created so much debate in Kerala politics that the great Communist leader and former Chief Minister E.M.S. Namboodiripad authored critical reviews of these titles to challenge Parameswaran’s arguments in the Communist Party of India (Marxist) newspapers Deshabhimani and Chintha.
Becoming the ‘hate figure’
My critics sought to draw an analogy between my condolence and praising a terrorist. But Parameswaran had never been accused of any crimes, or of statements instigating violence. He was a founder of the BJP along with Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani but, unhappy with active politics, retired to Kerala and declined Vajpayee’s offer of a ministership or governorship. He was an independent thinker despite his lifelong affiliation with the RSS, willing to challenge his own side and engage with a critic like myself. In short, the only crime Parameswaran could be accused of was defending an indefensible political ideology that I have opposed all my adult life. That didn’t make him a hate-figure to me.
But my mourning his demise apparently has made me a hate-figure to many of the very people whose torch I have been carrying in Parliament and outside it, in countless speeches, interviews, articles, and books. A lifetime spent articulating liberal and pluralist values weighs little, it seems, against a condolence tweet for a former RSS pracharak.
There’s something terribly wrong with this picture. Why shouldn’t our politics allow for mutual expressions of respect across the political divide? Why shouldn’t we be able to see or hear the good things said or done by those we fundamentally disagree with and oppose? Jawaharlal Nehru was remarkably cordial to, and respectful of, the opposition parliamentarians who routinely savaged him and his policies, and even took criticism on the chin from some of his own party MPs. One could disagree with a party’s ideology, worldview or policies as a whole, but find common ground with its leaders on some things. But we have reduced our politics to black and white today: either for or against, nothing in between. “Fifty Shades of Grey” could never be the title of a book about Indian politics.
Disservice to democracy
This view of Indian politics, reinforced daily by social media, vitiates our political discourse. It reduces democracy to a zero-sum game where everything done by one side is automatically bad and unacceptable to the other. It explains the destructive opposition politics during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)’s tenure, when the BJP ferociously opposed even those policies that the party itself had worked for, merely because they were being implemented by the Congress. It precludes the possibility of fair-minded debate and prevents the public from seeing Indian politicians as well-rounded human beings with minds of their own. Instead, everyone is reduced to a stock caricature, defined in absolute terms by their party affiliation alone.
This is a disservice to Indian democracy – which, as economist and philosopher Amartya Sen has pointed out, is supposed to be a process of deliberative reasoning, resulting in the best outcomes for the nation as a whole. Democracy is supposed to be an ongoing process, one in which there must be give-and-take, dialogue, and compromise among differing interests. Let us not reduce it to a game of kabbadi. Although unlike kabaddi, don’t hold your breath expecting the score to change.
The author is a Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram and former MoS for External Affairs and HRD. He served the UN as an administrator and peacekeeper for three decades. He studied History at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University and International Relations at Tufts University. Tharoor has authored 19 books, both fiction and non-fiction. Follow him on Twitter @ShashiTharoor. Views are personal.