May 30, 2020
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A Spoonful Of Dissent

Why can't our leaders learn to offer—and accept—constructive criticism?

A Spoonful Of Dissent
illustration by Sandeep Adhwaryu
A Spoonful Of Dissent
Disset is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy. It is as invaluable as it is inevitable. But not everybody chooses to express dissent. Only the brave and the bold do. Most people prefer the less dangerous option of expressing dissent through silence. But as British parliamentarian Edmund Burke said, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

The maturity of a democracy is revealed not merely in the quality of dissent but in the establishment's response to it. As in the US following the rise of the neo-cons to power, so too in India with the rise of the BJP, dissent is scorned. Views contrary to the majoritarian are deemed anti-national. And so the self-appointed custodians of Indian patriotism and Hindu nationalism dismiss rather than discuss, abuse rather than argue, deride rather than debate. Every weapon, from the internet to word-of-mouth, is used to malign, poison and attack those who don't conform. This ceaseless jet stream of vicious vitriol wears down many critics, precisely the motive of the bombardment. But in the end it matters little whether the Sangh parivar or secularists, Hindutvawallahs or the minorities win—Indian democracy loses.

The trouble with the self-righteous BJP is it takes criticism too personally. It ought to learn a few lessons from the Congress. Interestingly, these days traditional BJP-baiters are attacking the Congress with greater ferocity. They are trying to be even-handed, but one suspects it's also because they know they can do so with impunity: they won't be flooded with hate attacks from Congress supporters the way they would be from BJP votaries who descend like locusts whenever their party is criticised. Congressmen know how to take criticism in their stride. It's perhaps because they have been in the business of governance for so long. It could be maturity. It could be thick skin. Maybe the BJP too will learn to take criticism in its stride if it rules long enough. Already, there is a slight but perceptible improvement in the BJP government's ability to tolerate criticism. But the more hawkish a BJP leader is, the more intolerant he is to criticism or opposition.

Narendra Modi is a classic example. His intolerance to criticism has repeatedly manifested itself in despotic lashings. Instead of engaging his opponents in debate and discussion, the Don of Hindutva resorts to strong-arm tactics to muzzle, browbeat and malign. Dissenters are jailed, roughed up or physically thrown out from conference rooms by flunkies. Only the mafia reduces every issue to such tests of loyalty. More perilously, the Modi bandwagon lets loose an army of poison-pen footsoldiers to denigrate and undermine the pillars of our democracy. These institutions and the few men and women of integrity and courage are all we have to safeguard us from becoming a banana republic.

A little soul-searching would enable the Sangh parivar to realise that no other CM in recent times has crossed swords with every major democratic institution: the EC, the media, the NHRC, NGOs, the women's commission, the apex court. Surely, there's a message in this: that Modi is bulldozing a course antithetical to everything that's Indian, democratic, acceptable. Is it possible that Modi's course alone is right and others' is wrong? That Modi alone is a true Hindu and all these other institutions are led by anti-Hindus?

So many credible voices are arrayed against Modi, yet they are condemned as anti-BJP, anti-Hindu, anti-national, the treacherous pseudo-secularist fringe. This is because the BJP spin doctors have created the illusion that they represent the mainstream. The reality is the BJP has grabbed centrestage. But centrestage is not mainstream. The mainstream in India does not comprise kar sevaks hell-bent on building a Ram temple in Ayodhya.It comprises peace-loving people who endorse President Kalam's vision of India where the current generation bequeaths a safe, prosperous nation, not one packed with temples and mosques.

It goes without saying that dissent should be decent, informed and well-intentioned. Even well-intentioned dissent is not always right, but then it should be countered with facts and arguments, not fiction and abuse. Silencing dissent and attacking critics muddies our present, endangers our future. To give an example, years ago, when the IMF imposed its prescriptions on us, dissenters protested vehemently. The Congress government saw them as anti-reform spoilsports clinging to outdated ideology. But these critics succeeded in applying the brakes on the establishment. Informed dissent prevented the IMF from imposing its will and, as admitted by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, we were thus spared the kind of meltdown in Argentina, flight of capital in Mexico and devastating currency crisis in Thailand and Indonesia. We've seen how exposés regarding Bt cotton, GM potato, adulterated water, contaminated colas, the Taj corridor, pump scams and innumerable other issues help safeguard Indian interests in the long run. Citizens should now rise to protect dissenter Suraj Bhan Singh, the Rajasthani PSU employee suspended for publishing a fictionalised booklet on corruption in his organisation.

It's never wise to crush dissent. A dissenter is not an enemy. If anything, dissent must be accorded its rightful place in a democracy as in its absence a nation slides into servitude and injustice. Dissenters represent wavelets of checks and balances vital for course corrections in a democracy. It may be inconvenient, a nuisance or an obstacle, but debate and criticism challenge and restrain unaccountable power and unjust action. As senator J.W. Fulbright said, "In a democracy, dissent is an act of faith. Like medicine, the test of its value is not in its taste, but in its effects."

(The author can be reached at
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