Values in political rhetoric


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WHO has not experienced tedium at the mention of ideals in political speeches? As soon as we hear a politician appeal to secularism or democracy or social justice, our eyes start to glaze over, our ears cease to pay attention to what is being said. Nor is this reaction restricted to the public audience to which that political rhetoric is primarily directed.

Until recently, the dominant approaches in academic scholarship too had by and large eschewed any sustained inquiry into the values commonly espoused in political rhetoric. While the writings and pronouncements of exemplary figures such as Gandhi or Nehru had been the subject of influential scholarly works, the values expressed in everyday political discourse – parliamentary utterances, politicians’ pronouncements on policies and events – had remained marginal to the concerns of political analysts.

In recent years, a marked shift is discernable in this regard as scholars from a variety of standpoints have begun to pay closer attention to the ideals that constitute the staple fare of political discourse. In particular, a rich and growing body of literature on Hindu nationalism, secularism, democracy, multiculturalism and liberalism has greatly enhanced our understanding of the founding ideals of the Indian state.1 However, while the import of these studies for particular areas of scholarship has been acknowledged, their cumulative significance in reorienting our attention to ideals in politics has only been tenuously grasped. This essay seeks to underscore the salience of this scholarly turn for a study of the values espoused in political rhetoric. It also argues that further investigation into the structure of concepts and ideals, in particular political debates, is needed in order to arrive at a more precise grasp of the nature and the role of values in political life.2

This essay is divided into three sections. The first looks at some possible reasons why values in political rhetoric have conventionally been neglected. The second section outlines a few considerations in favour of a close analysis of such values. Finally, I suggest areas in which our understanding of politics can benefit from an analytical reconstruction of concepts and norms in political debates.

Why, then, have values in political rhetoric largely been ignored? Several factors appear to be at work here. At the most general level, there is the sheer monotony of political speech. The routine and repetitive incantation of ideals of democracy, secularism and social justice in political debate induces a sense of ennui. Because we have heard these terms so many times before, we assume that we know what they are. Their meanings appear to be both obvious and commonplace. As such, there doesn’t seem to be anything further for analysis to unearth.



The values found in political debate also fall foul of the main disciplinary approaches to politics. On the one hand, political theorists whose primary concern is with concepts and norms have not been interested in those espoused in political rhetoric. There may be several reasons for this. Normative political theorists have been largely preoccupied with constructing theories that stipulate, for instance, what principles of democracy or justice ideally require. The analysis of real-world political practice is not necessarily relevant to this task.

Even if this is accepted, as it is by many political theorists, that knowledge about actual political practices can aid theoretical advance, for instance by illuminating unexamined assumptions in a theory, it is not immediately apparent how an investigation of the principles professed in politics can contribute towards this. And the fact that the values espoused in political debate are often muddled and indeterminate, designated incorrectly, and deployed in logically inconsistent ways with little regard for clarity or precision in usage, might discourage potential theoretical interest.3

Not only have values in political rhetoric traditionally been disregarded by the political theorist, they have equally been ignored by historians and social scientists concerned with explaining political outcomes. The values professed by politicians have conventionally been regarded as little more than tools of political expediency, as smokescreens for more ‘real’ interests that determine political outcomes, such as political bargaining and material interests.

Politicians, it is felt, tailor principles at will in order to fit their aims of the moment. As such, the values professed in political life have no causal efficacy and are superfluous to explanations of political outcomes.4 And while there have been studies that have affirmed the explanatory role of values in politics, a detailed examination of these values is not usually regarded as germane to our understanding of political outcomes.



Why then should we bother with the principles professed by politicians? While I have sketched some possible reasons for the neglect of values in political rhetoric, my discussion has so far implicitly assumed that these values do in fact merit close attention. In the remainder of this essay, I shall try and outline some reasons in support of this view, drawing upon recent scholarship and using some examples from my research. In brief, I will argue that some of the considerations cited above against an analysis of values in political rhetoric are mistaken, and that while others are manifestly true – for instance, that the ideals invoked by politicians in defense of their positions are often ill-defined or insincerely held – it does not follow from this that an analysis of these values is redundant. Our understanding of politics can benefit considerably both from taking the values professed therein seriously, and from a detailed analytical reconstruction of norms in political debates.



Let us first consider the entrenched view that the values espoused in political rhetoric are irrelevant for our explanations of political outcomes. This view has been contested in several writings that have broadly affirmed the role of political discourse in shaping political action. In his account of why our explanations of politics must take seriously the principles espoused by political actors, Quentin Skinner is instructive on the question of exactly how professed principles condition the possibilities for political action. He argues that it does not follow from the fact that political actors are not usually sincerely motivated by the principles they profess, that principles play no causal role in politics.

In other words, the role of values in politics is not limited to the intentions of politicians in invoking such values. Even if the values proclaimed by a politician are a complete sham, in that there is not an iota of genuine belief invested in them, and the agent’s intentions in invoking principles are purely instrumental – to provide a cover, to lend spurious weight, to make conduct appear rational and right – professed principles may still play a role in determining his conduct.

For a rational agent claiming that ‘his apparently untoward actions were in fact motivated by some accepted set of social or political principles’ will be ‘obliged to behave in such a way that his actions remain compatible with the claim that these principles genuinely motivated him.’ In other words, ‘a principle that helps legitimate a course of action must also be amongst the enabling conditions of its occurrence’, conversely, ‘an action is inhibited from occurring if it cannot be legitimated.’ The further point here, contrary to the common view that politicians freely tailor principles to fit their projects, is that individual agents cannot manipulate the norms they use to legitimate their conduct wholly according to their will, for the availability and applicability of these norms is limited by their prevailing usage.



While politicians will undoubtedly seek to stretch the meaning of existing principles to cover the action they wish to legitimate, they are not unhindered in doing so, for if in the process of extension these principles become unrecognizable, they will no longer serve the purpose of legitimation. As Skinner puts it ‘...[an agent] cannot hope to stretch the application of the existing principles indefinitely; correspondingly, he can only hope to legitimate a restricted range of actions.’5

While politicians will try and mould principles in order to fit their projects, they also have to tailor their projects ‘in order to make them answer to the pre-existing language of moral principles.’ The prevailing normative vocabulary, thus, in part determines the range of actions open to an agent. Therefore, ‘to recover the nature of the normative vocabulary available to an agent for the description and appraisal of his conduct is at the same time to indicate one of the constraints on his conduct itself.’6



We see then that one of the reasons why the values espoused by politicians merit attention is because they constitute a key determinant of political action. Let us now consider the notion that any detailed examination of values in political debate is pointless because we already know what these are. Such views rest variously on assumptions that the meanings of values in political discourse are self-evident, simple, and that there is a single generally accepted sense in which these are being invoked.

Each of these assumptions is questionable. We do commonly witness the recurrence of the same set of normative terms in political debate. The repeated incantations of national unity, secularism or democracy in political discourse do create the impression that these values are being invoked in an obvious sense. Closer examination reveals, however, that the familiarity of political rhetoric is deceptive. In political discourse, seemingly simple and similar sounding appeals to secularism or national unity often obscure a complex structure of concepts.

Consider, for instance the case of national unity, one of the values most frequently bandied about in political discourse. What does an appeal to national unity refer to? To the political integrity of the country? To the stability of the state and the maintenance of civil peace? To social solidarity and cohesion between different social groups? To a sense of belonging to the nation? To national identity? To some combination of these?7 While it might appear at first sight that the meaning of national unity is straightforward and apparent, the term has had several related but distinct referents in political debate. And if we focus for the moment on one referent of the term, national identity, it is soon clear that there have been different conceptions of national identity in political discourse – from a definition of national identity in terms of secular democratic citizenship, to ethno- cultural characterizations of nationality in terms of belonging to a common Hindu civilization and culture.



The multiplicity of referents and conceptions of national unity implies that a political assertion that ‘Policy X undermines national unity’ might serve as shorthand for several different claims. It also implies that two political pronouncements that look similar might in fact embody very different arguments. For instance, special representation rights for minorities might be opposed on grounds of national unity, but for very different reasons: in one case because they are thought to undermine the construction of a national identity based on the principle that a person’s religion or caste is irrelevant in the political sphere, and in another case, because such rights are thought to represent a threat to the idea that all Indians share a common cultural identity.

Nor is national unity unique in this regard. Take the case of another political ideal, secularism. In political discourse, it has referred for instance, to a secular state, to a secular society, to secular attitudes and identities, and to the process of secularization. If we focus on the concept of a secular state, we find several conceptions in political discourse. Among others, a secular state has connoted disestablishment or the absence of an official state religion, it has been taken to imply state impartiality between religions or non-sectarianism, and it has been identified with the privatization of religion. Underpinning each of these conceptions in turn is a range of norms: for instance, while in some cases secularism as state impartiality between religions might be regarded as desirable primarily for the sake of equal rights for all individuals, in other instances, it could be favoured mainly for reasons of religious freedom for groups.8



We see then that the mundane and coarse exterior of political rhetoric might conceal multiple and intricate conceptions and subtle normative claims. Now in political usage, several different arguments are frequently run together, distinct concepts are conflated with each other and the precise conception of a concept being invoked in a particular instance is rarely specified. Indeed, the nebulousness of values and arguments in political rhetoric is partly deliberate, an occupational necessity of politics, as it were. Politicians often choose to collapse distinct arguments and to adopt open-ended appeals to values in order, for instance, to reach out to disparate constituencies, to reconcile discordant positions, or to maximize their room for manoeuvre.9

As political analysts seeking to come to grips with what the values professed in politics are, however, it is incumbent upon us to probe underneath the surface of political rhetoric. We need to ‘reconstruct and amplify’ the underlying concepts and norms, and to disentangle and pursue the implications of the distinct arguments that are deployed in political debate.10



What are the areas in which our understanding of politics can benefit from a detailed analysis of the values espoused in political debates? In this concluding section, I offer some examples in support of the case I have outlined during the course of this essay.

Our evaluations of political life commonly rely on our understanding of what the public norms of Indian politics have in fact been. Thus, for instance, secularism is frequently adjudged as having failed because the conception of secularism adopted at the time of independence was unsuitable to Indian conditions, or because those in charge of the Indian state have departed from the ideals of the Constitution-makers. In the absence of a sufficiently precise grasp of these ideals, however, our appraisals tend to remain broad and diffuse.

In a claim in a given instance that there has been a departure from constitutional secularism, what exactly does this lapse consist of? Does it lie in a failure to protect the basic rights of individuals belonging to minority groups that violates a key value underpinning constitutional secularism, that of equal citizenship? In appeals to religion in political mobilization that contravene the constitutional ideal of the exclusion of religion from the political domain? In the Indian state abandoning its formative quest to create a national identity that did not base itself on any ethno-cultural attributes?

Our appraisals frequently end up moving between the many distinct strands and connotations of secularism at play in political discourse, and between different criteria of what it is to be secular. So one benefit to be gained from an inquiry into the deep structure of concepts and norms in particular political debates is a better grasp of the discursive continuities and shifts in the careers of the founding ideals of the Indian state and more precise assessments of their successes and failures.



Second, a detailed analysis of values espoused in political debate can help clarify the nature of political disagreement, of what it is that divides opposing sides on an issue. Do the disputants on a particular policy disagree about the relevant values are? Or do they agree about values, but advance very different interpretations of these? In the Shah Bano debate for instance, both sides on the Muslim Women’s Bill took a stand on secularism, but while those advocating the bill defined secularism primarily in terms of religious freedom for groups, those opposing the bill characterised secularism in terms of equal rights for all individuals. It might also of course be the case that opposing sides on an issue share the same conception of an ideal, but construe its practical policy requirements differently. A reconstruction of underlying concepts and norms enables us to grasp what exactly is at issue between competing political proposals and thus places us in a better position to choose between them.

Finally, I want to return to one of the points discussed earlier, namely the significance of the values professed by politicians for our accounts of political outcomes. One example from Indian politics that illustrates the importance of the normative vocabulary of political debate for our explanations of political outcomes is the case of safeguards for religious minorities during constitution making.11 Religious minorities had been the chief beneficiaries of policies of minority ‘safeguards’ comprising reserved seats in legislatures and executives, and quotas in government employment during the colonial period, and along with the so called ‘backward sections’, were included within the purview of safeguards in early constitutional drafts. By the time of the final draft of the Indian Constitution, however, safeguards for religious minorities were dropped.



This remarkable development has curiously received little scholarly attention.12 It is generally assumed that the partition of the country provides an obvious and sufficient explanation for why safeguards for religious minorities came to be withdrawn during constitution making. Partition, it is argued, hardened opinion within the Indian National Congress against minority claims. Moreover, after partition, the Congress no longer had to conciliate a powerful Muslim League. Further, the main political parties pressing for safeguards for religious minorities, the Muslim League and the Sikh Panthic Party, were in disarray and could not present a united front of resistance against the revocation of safeguards. As such, the Congress had few real checks in the way of pushing through its agenda.



Now while partition and the change of circumstance it produced are undoubtedly crucial for our understanding of why safeguards for religious minorities came to be retracted during constitution making, they do not in my view constitute a sufficient explanation of this outcome. Consider this: While the Congress was overwhelmingly preponderant in the Assembly after partition, this was also a time when the foundations of the new Indian nation state were being laid and the Congress was being called upon to make good its claim that it was not just a Hindu party, but represented all sections of the Indian nation.

The Congress could hardly afford to be seen as simply using its brute majority to steamroller a narrow partisan or sectional agenda on a question that had for so long and so bitterly divided Indians. Indeed, it is important to recall how close the Constituent Assembly did in fact come to adopting safeguards for religious minorities: these were first accepted for inclusion in the Constitution after partition and would remain in the Draft Constitution until 1949, when they were abolished through a narrow vote in the advisory committee.

I would like to suggest that one critical condition that enabled the Congress effect this radical policy change was the availability of a normative vocabulary in which safeguards for religious minorities were illegitimate. My analysis of the Constituent Assembly debates suggests that the central concepts of the nationalist legitimating vocabulary, those of secularism, democracy, rights, justice and national unity, were construed as precluding safeguards for minority groups as a matter of general policy. In nationalist opinion, safeguards were regarded as legitimate only for a temporary period and for a specific purpose, that of ameliorating the social and economic disabilities of the ‘backward classes’. There was no principled defence in the nationalist vocabulary for safeguards in the case of religious minorities.



This marked a crucial shift from the colonial framework where the entitlement of minority groups to special representation and other forms of safeguards had been an established principle. The illegitimacy of safeguards for religious minorities within a broadly shared normative vocabulary was a crucial factor that facilitated their abolition during constitution making.

To conclude, this essay has sketched some reasons for paying closer attention to the values professed by politicians, and for why a detailed analytical reconstruction of the underlying structure of concepts and norms in political debates is fruitful. These reflections are not intended to be exhaustive, and more work is needed to order and develop the arguments outlined here. The broad aims of this exercise are to contribute to ongoing scholarly discussions across the sub-disciplines of normative political theory and empirical political science, and to suggest that Indian political debates, where the fundamental ideals of the polity are being disputed, constitute an important field for this kind of an inquiry.



* I am grateful to Nandini Gooptu and Prashant Kidambi for comments.

1. For some key works in this regard see, for instance, Rajeev Bhargava (ed.), Secularism and its Critics (Delhi, 1998); Thomas Blom Hansen, The Saffron Wave, Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India (Delhi, 1999); Neera Chandhoke, Beyond Secularism: The Rights of Religious Minorities (Delhi, 1999); Niraja Gopal Jayal, Democracy and the State: Welfare, Secularism, and Development in Contemporary India (Delhi, 1999); Christophe Jaffrelot, The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics: 1925 to the 1990s (London, 1996); Sunil Khilnani, The Idea of India (London, 1997); and Gurpreet Mahajan, Identities and Rights: Aspects of Liberal Democracy in India (Delhi, 1998)). On political discourse more generally, see for instance the writings of Upendra Baxi, Partha Chatterjee, Sudipto Kaviraj, Bhikhu Parekh and Thomas Pantham.

2. For an analysis of arguments in political debates, see for instance Jayal, Democracy and the State; also Zoya Hasan, ‘Minority Identity, Muslim Women Bill Campaign and the Political Process’, Economic and Political Weekly, 24(1), 7 January 1989; Zakia Pathak and Rajeswari Sundararajan, ‘Shah Bano’, Signs 14(3), 1989; Meena Dhandha, ‘Justifications for Gender Quotas in Legislative Bodies: A Consideration of Identity and Representation’, Women’s Philosophy Review, No. 20, Winter 1998-99.

3. For an engaging discussion of this point, see Adam Swift, ‘Politics v. Philosophy’, Prospect, August-September 2001.

4. This is the basis for Quentin Skinner’s famous critique. See in particular his ‘Some Problems in the Analysis of Political Thought and Action’, and ‘Language and Social Change’ in J. Tully (ed.), Meaning and Context: Quentin Skinner and his Critics (Princeton, 1988).

5. Skinner, ‘Some Problems in the Analysis of Political Thought and Action’, pp. 116-117. I have discussed this argument in greater detail in my M.Phil thesis, ‘Recognizing Minorities: Some Aspects of the Indian Constituent Assembly Debates, 1946-1949’, Faculty of Social Studies, University of Oxford, 1997.

6. Skinner, ‘Language and Social Change’, p. 132.

7. For further discussion, see Rochana Bajpai, ‘Minority Rights in the Constituent Assembly Debates, 1946-1950’, No.30, QEH Working Paper Series (No. 30, 1999), University of Oxford.

8. On the values underpinning secularism, see Bhargava, ‘What is Secularism For?’ in his Secularism and its Critics. For a discussion of the distinction between the ideology of secularism and the process of secularization, see for instance, Mahajan, Identities and Rights.

9. On this point, see Michael Freeden, Ideologies and Political Theory: A Conceptual Approach (Oxford, 1996), and Swift, ‘Politics v. Philosophy’.

10. Freeden, Ideologies and Political Theory, p. 34.

11. This argument is developed in greater detail in my M.Phil thesis (1997). See also Bajpai, published as‘Minority Rights in the Constituent Assembly Debates, 1946-1950’, and Rochana Bajpai, ‘Constituent Assembly Debates and Minority Rights’, Economic and Political Weekly 25(21- 22), 27 May 2000.

12. For notable exceptions, For an early exception, see Ralph Retzlaff, ‘The Problem of Communal Minorities in the Drafting of the Indian Constitution’, in R.N. Spann (ed.), Constitutionalism in Asia (Bombay, 1963). For recent writings on the Constituent Assembly Debates, see Iqbal Ansari, ‘Minorities and the Politics of Constitution Making in India’, in D.L. Sheth and G. Mahajan (eds.), Minority Identities and the Nation State (Delhi, 1999); James Chiriyankandath, ‘Constitutional Predilections’, Seminar (No. 484, December 1999) and Shefali Jha, ‘Secularism in the Constituent Assembly Debates, 1946-1950’, Economic and Political Weekly 37(30), 27 July 2002.