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Politics Without Ethics

In the closing chapter of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle announced a forthcoming sequel that would extend that book’s concerns to the study of the polis– the body politic or city-state. For Aristotle, and for most subsequent thinkers about politics, political thinking is grounded in ethical thinking. Our assumptions and beliefs about politics or individual policies are inseparable from our ethical principles, and political debate necessarily requires ethical debate.

But the discussion of ethics is increasingly absent in contemporary Indian political discourse. Politics is constructed as a sphere autonomous of ethics, and ethical concerns are often dismissed altogether. The dismissal of ethics takes many forms: from an emphasis on feasibility or practicality, to a narrow focus on supposedly value-neutral ends such as progress or security, to the belief that politics is ultimately about the winning and holding of power. From politicians themselves, to reporters, to the punditocracy (op-ed columnists, academics, think-tank policy analysts), on both right and left, virtually everyone has contributed to the separation of ethics from politics. This separation is a betrayal of the founding values of our Republic and its constitution, and has worrying implications for our politics.

Politicians of all parties rarely, if ever, speak the language of ethical imperatives. This is true even of those religious conservatives who are supposedly concerned above all with morality. Indeed, the terms “moral” and “morality” have become so debased in our political discourse that the phrase “moral police” is deployed to describe those whom have no morality to speak of.

Take the prominent early moves of Yogi Adityanath’s new administration in Uttar Pradesh. The crackdown on slaughterhouses was justified not on ethical grounds– that the methods of killing were inhumane or the conditions were unsanitary– but purely because these abattoirs were “illegal” (a grander word for unlicenced). The “anti-Romeo squads” have been placed in the context of a broader fightback against “love Jihad”. This, too, is never defended ethically, but rather on the grounds of community power: the rights of the Hindus to keep their women, and to defend themselves demographically against an increase in the Muslim share of the population.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi does, occasionally, speak– or at least approach– ethical language, for instance in his criticism of triple talaaq, or in the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan campaign. But this talk is not followed up with decisive action– ethics do not drive policy. Policy is, rather, driven by politics, which is understood to mean electoral politics. Arguably no government has been so consistently political in its formulation and promotion of policy. It is an approach that can only justify itself electorally, and has done so.

On most issues, Modi and his supporters appeal to a vague “national interest”, in which rights or justice for India’s citizens do not figure. Take two recent questions: demonetization, and the use of an innocent civilian as a human shield in Kashmir. It is difficult to pin down the justifications for demonetization, because new ones have been introduced so frequently. But the central narrative was that it was a strike against a small class of Indians who had amassed and stored cash by corrupt means. Demonetization was the identification and punishment of internal enemies of the nation, and any amount of suffering was justified as being in the national interest. This is not an ethical argument, even as it purports to be one.

The Prime Minister’s critics were guilty, too, of not mounting a sustained ethical critique of demonetization. Much attention was focused on the potential impact on GDP, or on the technical question of the policy’s effectiveness in achieving its stated goals. These were and are important questions. But Modi’s narrative was not primarily an economic one, and it was thus a mistake to attempt to refute it primarily on economic grounds.

The first and strongest critique of demonetization should have been ethical: that this was a violation of individual rights, a mockery of the proper form of policymaking in a constitutional democracy, and an unjustifiable imposition of material suffering. That the PM should be able to get away with, indeed prosper politically, from such an act is testament, yes, to his remarkable charisma and popularity, but also to the failure of his opponents to construct an ethical narrative.

Modi and his colleagues have not personally tried to defend the army’s recent tactics in Kashmir. But his supporters in the press and on social media have, on this issue, gone further than a mere avoidance of ethical questions. They have actually rubbished the very idea of ethical concerns in politics. These concerns have been branded a luxury afforded only by those who sit in “A/C rooms” (the PM’s supporters apparently all abjure air conditioning) or Khan Market cafés. Even worse, those who raise ethical objections are accused of harming the army and thus the national interest. There is a consequentialist ethical justification of human shields– that, morally, such a tactic is worth it if it saves lives–but this is rarely advanced.

On Kashmir, unlike on demonetization, there have been plenty of individual voices raising ethical concerns. But the political Opposition, fearful of being branded as sympathetic to jihadist separatism, is too timid to do so. Still, the extent to which the government’s “nationalist” supporters seek to dismiss ethics altogether is terrifying.

The right has no monopoly on excluding ethics from political discourse. Indeed, left-of-centre parties and their supporters are equally if not more guilty. First, in the Indira Gandhi era, for conceiving politics narrowly in terms of power and electoral victories, and for enabling and justifying authoritarianism; next, through Shah Bano, Mandal and beyond, for abandoning wholesale their historic commitment to individual rights in favour of community rights. The left’s attachment to community rights is, at this point, virtually an addiction: and it accompanies a view of Indian society in which power, rather than freedom, justice or equality, is what really matters. (There are plenty of exceptions, of course. I am speaking here of left-of-centre political parties and their intellectual supporters.)

To illustrate the damage that the left’s abandonment of ethics has done, let us consider two issues: reservation and personal law. The original rationale for reservation was a straightforwardly ethical one. There was unambiguous evidence of centuries-long discrimination and exclusion against Dalits and adivasis. Reservation was recognized as a moral necessity. The modern left has stopped making the moral case for reservation, one grounded in discrimination and exclusion, or allowing for policy modifications that could be justified morally, such as means-testing. Instead, reservation has been deployed as a political tactic and justified in terms of power. The Patidar agitation illustrated how far the debate on reservation has moved from moral imperatives.

On personal law, the left’s betrayal of its historic ethical principles is just as egregious. The constitution had a clear vision of India as a republic with equality before the (secular) law. Ambedkar saw the reform of Hindu personal law as a precursor to a uniform civil law. Today’s left, with its fetishization of community rights, cannot endorse the constitution’s vision of equality. Instead of making an ethical case for communal personal law, they equate a uniform civil code with the imposition of Hindu law on everyone, and make narrow technical arguments claiming that, in some respects, Hindu law is actually worse for women.

But gender justice is not the primary ethical case for a uniform civil code: that rests on individual rights being superior to community rights, and on equality before the law. Since the left has failed to make a ethical case for its abandonment of the principles of equality and individual rights, it is difficult to identify any other motivation than votebank politics, or politics minus ethics. As a result, the left has lost both ethically and politically: it has handed the BJP an issue that ought to have been the preserve of the secular left. On triple talaaq, for instance, it has allowed Narendra Modi to look like the champion of ethics.

The press are almost as guilty as the politicians of promoting an ethics-free vision of politics. This is most true of the obsessive focus on elections. Following the BJP’s clean sweep of Uttar Pradeshi in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Amit Shah was venerated by the press as a modern-day Chanakya. This after a campaign of open religious polarization and the selection of candidates facing serious ethical and criminal charges, such as Sanjeev Balyan and Sakshi Maharaj. All that seemed to matter to the mainstream press was that Shah’s strategy had worked electorally. In this view, politics is only about winning, and electoral mandates negate ethical concerns.

In closing, it is worth reflecting on how the ignoring of ethics is a departure from our own political tradition, and on its consequences for our politics and society. The founding of the Republic of India, from the freedom struggle through the writing of the constitution and the establishment of parliamentary democracy in the 1950s, was deeply rooted in ethics. Take the examples of the three most important actor-thinkers of that founding: Gandhi, Ambedkar and Nehru. Gandhi placed his ethical critique and reform of Indian (especially Hindu) society before his campaign for its freedom. He believed that it would be better not to achieve Swaraj at all than to do so while failing to eradicate untouchability. Contrast this with those present-day politicans and columnists who argue that we should secure Kashmir by any means necessary, and damn the ethical consequences.

For both Ambedkar and Nehru, their thinking about politics and policymaking was inseparable from their ethical beliefs. Ambedkar highlighted not only the relationship between caste and power, but also the moral and spiritual consequences of caste. Like James Baldwin writing about race in America in The Fire Next Time, he argued that the deepest impact of the caste system fell on the caste Hindus, who had been spiritually damaged by the moral atrocities they conducted, and prevented from forming a strong and healthy society. In his thinking about democracy and the writing of our constitution, he was motivated by his desire for a society which could achieve genuine Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

It is little surprise that Nehru’s foreign and economic policies are ridiculed in these times in which ethics is seen to have no place in politics. His foreign policy was often quite realist, and far from the popular caricature, but it was also motivated by the ethical imperatives of dignity (which requires autonomy), honesty, and fraternity between colonized peoples. Even those of us who criticize his state-led economic policies can recognize their roots in his life-long commitment to equality and justice.

The same was true of Nehru’s ideological opponents, such as C. Rajagoplachari. Democracy is healthiest when political principles follow from ethical ones. Those who believe in individual rather than community rights, or in a smaller state that respects economic freedom, do so not merely or even in the first instance because these will lead to economic growth, but because of deeply held ethical convictions and an opposition to oppression, authoritarianism, and the curtailment of liberty. Liberty is its own end.

In India, what we have instead is a depressingly narrow view of politics. Narendra Modi is often described as the politician of aspiration. He represents aspiration in his own journey as the chaiwala’s son who became the most powerful PM in three decades, and in his vision of a stronger and more prosperous India. But Modi’s narrative and vision have no room for moral aspiration: for the notion that we can aspire to more than economic and political power, that we can aspire to be better versions of ourselves, as individuals, as a society, and as a republic. That we can be a kinder, more decent, freer country in which individuals feel empowered to live fulfilling lives.

This is a sad departure from the founding values of the republic, which was conceived both as a space both for the fulfillment of individual aspirations as well as a humane, inclusive and virtuous society that would soon rid itself of the kinds of oppression and injustice that had deeper roots than colonialism. If we conclude that our soldiers in Kashmir ought not to be constrained by laws that are rooted in our ethical republican values, then we turn our backs on the very project of the Republic of India. Instead we have security and growth at any cost, and a value-neutral conception of “good governance”.

To be fair to Modi, it is not as if any of his political opponents are offering a competing moral narrative. The Aam Aadmi Party, which had the advantage of not being constrained by a historic reliance on votebank politics, has failed, thus far, to take up this opportunity. After three years of insipid failure to offer a compelling narrative that is different from the Prime Minister’s, the Opposition’s only chance lies in a return to ethical principles: to the language of moral aspiration, and of individual rights– that is, unless the refusal to conceive of politics in ethical terms has hardened into an inability.

About the author

Keshava Guha

Keshava Guha is a writer of fiction and literary and political journalism, based in Delhi. He writes regularly on politics for Scroll.in and on books for The Hindu, and contributes to a variety of other publications including, most recently, Caravan, The Nightwatchman and Business Line.