A fortnight ago, in this very column, I wrote an open letter to the chief minister of Maharashtra. In the past, I have written open letters to Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, Raj Thackeray and many others: None of them have chosen to reply. Which is why I was pleasantly surprised when Devendra Fadnavis took the trouble of replying in some detail to the questions raised over governance issues. Yes, there was the occasional jibe at being a ‘senior’ journalist, a ‘leftie’, ‘pseudo-secular’, but then your PR spin-masters who masquerade as political ‘advisers’ can’t completely discard their ideological baggage. But even if someone had ghost-written the letter on behalf of the chief minister, it was a commendable attempt at engaging in a civilised public dialogue, rare in the times we live in.
This is the age of raucous debates on prime time television, where the strength of an argument is often in inverse proportion to the decibel levels in the studio. Screaming party spokespersons, often goaded by equally loud anchors (including, at times, this columnist), tend to screech at each other rather than talk to one another. We’ve even had the bizarre and shameful spectacle recently where two panelists in a ‘discussion’ traded blows even as the channel perhaps took delight in the ‘big fight’ boosting its television rating points. The hapless viewer is no doubt ‘entertained’ but scarcely ‘enlightened’. The heat of a debate doesn’t always spread the sunlight of knowledge.
This is also a time where those who question, dissent, hold up the mirror of truth to power are an endangered species. Fadnavis and my home state of Maharashtra are prime examples. Rationalists have been shot dead while journalists who challenge the establishment are on a ‘hit-list’ and being provided security. In a state with great public debating traditions (recall the robust Ranade versus Agarkar debates of the 19th century) there is now a worrying ‘them’ versus ‘us’ polarisation accompanied by the omnipresent threat of violence.
It’s also a period where we have moved from a prime minister who didn’t speak at all to one who perhaps is a shade too loquacious. If Manmohan Singh singularly failed to communicate at all with the people of the country, Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to prefer a one-way communication. Even the ‘Mann ki baat’, which started off with such promise, has become little more than a tedious monologue aimed at self-promotion on a government-controlled medium. Singh at least would occasionally engage in a free-wheeling conversation with journalists on a flight back home; Modi has chosen to shut journalists out of any public engagement unless it is entirely on his terms. He hasn’t held a single press conference as prime minister, and even as Gujarat chief minister, he consciously kept the media at bay.
It wasn’t always like this. Public figures in the pre-Independence struggle were deeply committed to free and frank conversations, often placing their thoughts in the public domain for scrutiny and a wider dialogue. Mahatma Gandhi constantly sought feedback through his writing; so did the original editor-politician Lokmanya Tilak in his Kesari newspaper. Jawaharlal Nehru was perhaps the most gifted and voracious letter writer; he would write regularly to his chief ministers, political adversaries and global leaders, who would often write back with equal passion. The letters to the chief ministers (now part of an excellent book edited by Madhav Khosla) reveal a desire to engage in a mature and dignified dialogue based on mutual respect. Even his authoritarian daughter Indira Gandhi didn’t balk at continuing this tradition.
The 1975 Emergency was perhaps a turning point, it brought a bitterness and hostility into our public life which has since only got worse. Forget about letter writing or studio debates, many of our politicians will not even agree to share space with each other in assemblies and Parliament. This is an era where elected legislators have thrown mikes and chairs at each other, where House speakers have been almost assaulted, where walkouts, adjournments, suspensions are now routine. A Modi versus a Sonia, a Mayawati versus a Mulayam, a Mamata versus Left, a Jayalalithaa versus a Karunanidhi: Politics in this country has acquired a distinctly do or die pugilist edge.
In this environment, the media too has become a soft target for rising intolerance. Across the country, we have witnessed the rise of despotic leaders who do not see any need to communicate through the media with the citizenry. Many of them now use social media to try and bypass the mainstream media by engaging in a tightly controlled interaction where the terms of engagement are pre-determined. So much easier to put out well-choreographed soundbites or selective news items in 140 characters than engage in the cut and thrust of an interview or a press conference where discomfiting questions may be asked. The result is a growing contempt for any form of political accountability that could strengthen the democratic discourse.
Which is why I genuinely believe that Fadnavis has truly set a healthy precedent. To have a chief minister respond to a column by a journalist gives hope that there may actually be a new generation of media-savvy politicians who have the self-confidence to face hard questions without blinking. Fadnavis is, interestingly, of the same age as Rahul Gandhi. If he can engage in a debate through the printed word, why can’t the great grandson of Nehru open up, too?
Post-script: In the aftermath of the replies and counter-replies between me and the chief minister, there was a top trend on Twitter #DevendraslapsRajdeep. It would be a pity if abusive Twitter mobs are allowed to see even a frank contest of views through the prism of a violent letter ‘war’.