'In this season of inspired mean-spirited campaigning, it still seemed remarkable that we are more likely to learn civics lessons from school children than our leaders,' says Rahul Jacob.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com
The morning assembly at a large primary and middle school, not far from Begusarai in Bihar, seemed like a rainbow after the endless torrents of abuse for which this election campaign will be long remembered.
The boys and girls in blue uniforms were solemnly reciting passages from the Constitution as if they were verses from a prayer.
The TV anchor Ravish Kumar remarked on the beauty of this tradition, but the principal and senior teachers were matter-of-fact about the daily ritual as if they regarded it as a building block of education, as routine as learning to count.
Perhaps that is how it should be, but in this season of inspired mean-spirited campaigning, it still seemed remarkable that we are more likely to learn civics lessons from school children than our leaders.
Instead, we have had almost daily lessons in bigotry and inappropriately wrapping oneself in the uniforms of our troops.
Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi has led from the front in speeches such as the one in Latur where he asked first-time voters to dedicate their vote to Pulwama martyrs as well as to those who carried out the Balakot strikes.
One is sympathetic for all members of the armed forces when they are invoked so frequently in the heat of a political campaign in a democracy where, unlike in Pakistan, the army does not have a role to play. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Ajay Singh Bisht's comments have been as ugly as ever, but nothing he does shocks anymore.
No one should be surprised that the foreign press have momentarily shrugged off their obsession with Donald Trump, Brexit and China and are training their sights on India as never before.
The New York Times ran a front page story on the plight of Muslims in India while Reuters reported that 'the head of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling Hindu nationalist party took his invective against illegal Muslim immigrants to a new level this week as the general election kicked off, promising to throw them into the Bay of Bengal'.
Gurcharan Das, author of The Difficulty of Being Good, waxes banal in Foreign Affairs magazine, lamenting Modi's lack of purposeful economic reforms. 'Had he delivered, I might even have forgiven his distasteful ethno-nationalist politics,' writes Das who grandiloquently reminds us he was among the first, er, liberals to endorse Modi in 2014.
Much more significant has been the Supreme Court's intervention in this hate-filled campaign when questioning counsel, for the Election Commission, on when it intended to act.
I have sympathy of a sort for the EC given that the violations this election come fast and furious and the ruling party is allegedly responsible for so many, but the exchange between the exercised Supreme Court judges and the EC representative must count as among the most unsettling in the history of Indian democracy.
'So you are basically saying you are toothless and powerless against hate speeches,' the judges said.
Not to be outdone, Rahul Gandhi has jumped in with his juvenile observation that every crook appears to have Modi as a last name.
Creditable as the Congress's humanist manifesto is on doing away with such arcane colonial holdovers as the laws on what constitutes sedition, I have not yet come across a sharp rebuttal of the BJP's minority-baiting from its senior leaders.
Then again, the frightening campaign Rajiv Gandhi oversaw in the 1984 election, not long after Sikhs had been massacred by Congress-led mobs on the streets of Delhi, was notorious as well. 'Will Your Grocery List, in the Future, include Acid Bulbs, Iron Rods, Daggers?' read one of the Congress advertisements.
The enduring problem for India is that while illiberal democracies the world over are hostage to abusive campaigns on WhatsApp and at election rallies, our young population are both poor, under-employed or without jobs and have had an education that is a far cry from the school Ravish Kumar lauded in Bihar, let alone the kind that we have enjoyed in urban India.
Our current leaders, meanwhile, are a kind of endlessly diminishing return on democracy. By contrast, I spent part of this spring reading Ramachandra Guha's riveting account of Mahatma Gandhi's evolution into a leader in South Africa. His deep and yet routine connection with Muslims, Christians, Jewish as well as lower caste Hindus is a lesson in cosmopolitanism.
As a 'Hindu Christian' to borrow L K Advani's ugly terminology from several campaigns ago, watching this frightening election has made me wonder what acts of ritualistic assimilation will be required of us who are not the real kind of Indian.
Will being able to sing the wonderfully melodious Gayatri Mantra be necessary or can I get by arguing that I say 'Om' (in yoga class twice a week) many times more often than as an agnostic I mouth 'Amen'.
Perhaps it would be better for India if reciting parts of the Constitution every day were used as a foundation for citizenship instead.