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Your Scam is Bigger Than Mine: Malfunctioning Morals Have Made ‘Chanakya’ the Ideal of Clever Politicians

File photo of Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Ajit Pawar after the oath-taking ceremony. (Image: Special Arrangement)

File photo of Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Ajit Pawar after the oath-taking ceremony. (Image: Special Arrangement)

The fallacy of whataboutery is infinitely uglier than bad old vices like mendacity, corruption, and misuse of power.

Ravi Shanker Kapoor
  • Last Updated: February 17, 2020, 11:15 AM IST
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We celebrate the legend of Lord Ram killing the demon Ravan, believing it to be the victory of good over evil. That was then, in Satya Yug. Unfortunately, we live in Kali Yug. In today’s world, more often than not, it is the lesser evil that overcomes a greater one.

The ‘goli maaro’ rhetoric, violence in the Jawaharlal Nehru University, and the action-packed political drama in Maharashtra underline this fact.

Union Minister Anurag Thakur’s intemperate remarks seem to have overshadowed the ones made in the past by Aam Aadmi Party leaders, including its chief Arvind Kejriwal.

Ditto with the JNU disturbances. The picture that emerged was simple: Left-leaning students were protesting against fee hike and reportedly coercing students not to file semester registrations. They even ransacked the server room. This continued for a few days. On the evening of January 5, activists of the BJP-affiliated ABVP allegedly attacked Left students within the university premises. The police, meanwhile, didn’t do much to check violence.

Evidently, both groups include unsavoury elements but, because of the brazen raid by masked goons, the ABVP starts looking thuggish. Concomitantly, lal salaam-type students have been able to present themselves as the wronged, beaten but intrepid warriors against an unjust, hostile government and its officers, commissars, and activists. Nothing could be farther from the truth, for it is a well-known fact that Left students are no paragons of tolerance and harmony.

In fact, no student group in India—whether Left, ABVP or Congress-linked—can claim to be virtuous. Yet, the attack on Left students by masked goons was so brazen that even the most ardent BJP supporters squirmed over it. The misdemeanours of Left students simply relegated into oblivion.

But why did ABVP activists reportedly attack their opponents in the JNU? The vice-chancellor is a sympathiser; at the Centre, it is their government which controls the police. Besides, their opponents were in the wrong, so why not penalise them in a proper, legal manner?

Similarly, who got the bright idea of luring Nationalist Congress Party leader Ajit Pawar to the Bharatiya Janata Party camp?

Instead of hazarding a guess about who and why of the attack on Left students or the early morning gubernatorial coup, it would be more enlightening to find out how they reached that decision.

At the heart of the issue is a fallacy—tu quoque, also called whataboutery. Literally, it means ‘you too’: I am bad but you too are so. It is a retort that an accused person hurls at his adversary, implying that latter has also been indulging in the same activity. ‘Your scam is bigger than mine’—this is how our politicians use it.

This fallacy, along with other pathologies, has badly infected public discourse, transmogrifying it into a dialectic whose defining feature is sophistry; the argument has to be won by hook or by crook; ends justify the means. This gels perfectly with the prime emotion of the public discourse participants—self-righteousness. The opponent is not in error but in sin.

So, how does it matter that in punishing the students guilty of hooliganism the due process of law was not adopted? Didn’t they too vandalise the server room? And why should it matter that constitutional niceties are not taken care of while swearing in a government to keep out the anti-BJP forces? Didn’t the Congress abuse the office of governor?

Whataboutery is infinitely uglier than bad old vices like mendacity, corruption, and misuse of power. When a politician lies about his involvement in a scam, he at least acknowledges, implicitly, that venality is bad: he has been involved in a crime, which he denies; more importantly, he doesn’t say that the crime doesn’t matter.

But when a politician justifies his misdeeds on the grounds that his opponents also did them, indeed his own misdeed were less degenerate than those of his opponents, the moral compass goes haywire. In the entire ecosystem. In such a milieu, the mendacious crook, the lesser evil, looks good.

This is the reason that Left students, who were forcibly preventing their colleagues from registering, now look like an oppressed lot. This is also the reason that the incongruity of political alliance between the Shiv Sena, the NCP, and the Congress hasn’t attracted as much opprobrium and ridicule as the early morning swearing-in did.

Just as bad currency drives out good, fallacies like whataboutery banish decency, reason, and common sense from public discourse and the political arena. This is what has happened in India in the last few years. The impact is felt not just in the marketplace of ideas; it also contaminates the ideas-morality continuum; as a consequence, the effect spills over to public and political morality.

With a malfunctioning moral compass, politics gets reduced to realpolitik. Unsurprisingly, Chanakya, the ancient political strategist who is mistakenly referred to as a political philosopher, has become the ideal of clever politicians. Politicians vie with each other to be acknowledged, by friends and foes, as a Chanakya, not as a Washington, Gandhi, Churchill, Jaiprakash Narain, or Thatcher.

While morality has been divorced from politics, political thinking has ceased to have much relationship with the Enlightenment ideas individualism and rationalism. And we are left with the clash between evils. After all, it’s Kali Yug.

The author is a freelance journalist. Views expressed are personal.

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