Emerging victorious after an acrimonious election, Narendra Modi has been sworn in as India’s Prime Minister for a second term. While several politicians, celebrities, corporate honchos and foreign dignitaries attended his oath-taking ceremony, Opposition leaders Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi were also in attendance.
And that seems to be the mark of a change.
A change that the country’s political discourse badly needs when both the national parties, the BJP and the Congress, were seen attacking each other during the run-up to the polls — leading to the most bitter electoral battle in Indian history.
So, let’s pause and reflect on what went wrong and how.
For this is the beginning of a new era. And this era should be different from what we saw in 2014 and beyond.
Abuses and Politics
Abuses are outrageous from anyone. But when a country’s leaders hurl abuses at each other, it sets a dangerous precedent to emulate. In the past decade, Indian politics has undergone a paradigm shift. Mockery, virulence and hate dominate speeches and vehement opinionating has become a luxury for politicians to indulge in.
This is in stark contrast to the pre- and post-Independence-era politics until the 1990s, where leaders respected each other. And those who didn’t did not retaliate with abuses. Love and humility were the weapons used to strike back at abuses. In fact, political adversaries had greater respect for one another rather than abhorrence. Instead of breeding anger, hatred and dividing society, that era and its politicians were guided by unity.
When Jawaharlal Nehru became the Prime Minister of the country, Mahatma Gandhi told him that independence was won not just by the Congress, so people from different ideologies should be part of the first cabinet — consequently, Pt. Nehru included Shyama Prasad Mukherjee in his cabinet, despite him belonging to an entirely different ideological orientation.
Again, it was on Mahatma Gandhi’s suggestion that BR Ambedkar, who had always been Gandhi ji’s opponent, was appointed to draft the Indian Constitution.
Later, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee rose as a young boy from the Bharatiya Jana Sangh and became a debutant Parliamentarian in 1957, the then-incumbent PM Pt. Nehru predicted that he would become the Prime Minister of India one day.
Thus, in the good old days, India’s leaders seemed to carry a sense of belonging within them — and this was evident during Indira Gandhi’s era as well. Even after receiving abuses from those who were at cross-purposes, she never replied with abuse. Such was the generosity of the Iron Lady of India.
She respected her rivals too. This was the reason why her staunch critic, Jayaprakash Narayan, once blessed her with a bright future, despite calling her a dictator in the past. After the 1971 war, Atal Bihari Vajpayee too sang praises for her and compared her to Durga.
Then came the Vajpayee and Sonia era, where both opponents had a bitter rivalry between them. Time and again, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L K Advani raked up Sonia’s foreign origin to prevent her from becoming India’s PM. But still, none of them ever crossed the Lakshman Rekha of due decorum.
But we live in a different world today.
Our present political leaders have long crossed that line of Maryada. They have reduced the political discourse to a new low — and I wonder if they can stoop any lower.
The Transition From Respect To Gaali-Politics
Although almost every political party’s leaders have made snide remarks and jibes at their opponents in the recent past, to my mind, none can match the BJP.
Ever since Narendra Modi took centrestage in Indian politics, his ire for the ‘Nehru-Gandhi family’ became apparent. During his run-up to the 2014 General Elections, his fascination for a 'Congress Mukt Bharat' was obvious. And, election after election, this fascination has swelled. Whether he campaigns for state elections, national or municipal (our beloved PM went to campaign for Delhi Municipal elections too), he hardly makes a speech without deriding the parivar, especially Jawaharlal Nehru.
I understand that Pt. Nehru has been the most reviled adversary of RSS. And so, Narendra Modi, who was once a full-time RSS worker, doesn’t conform to civilities when he addresses Pt. Nehru or his family in his campaign speeches. And, as if deriding Sonia Gandhi as a “Jersey cow” and Rahul Gandhi as a “hybrid bachda” wasn’t enough, he dragged the former assassinated leader Rajiv Gandhi in his politics too.
Recently, when he took a potshot at Rahul Gandhi, saying that his father and former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s life ended as “Bhrashtachari number 1”, he crossed the line.
It’s understandable that he took revenge on the Congress party because of the latter’s “Chowkidar Chor Hai” campaign against him. By all means, I do not support, nor approve of Rahul Gandhi or the Congress party calling the PM a “Chor”. I believe that he is the PM of our country and he should get the respect that the PM's office deserves. But, at the same time, Modi’s retaliation for the negative campaigning should have targeted Rahul Gandhi — not his deceased father.
Abusing the dead is abusing Indian culture. And when a PM disparages the dead, his legion of devotees and party members eagerly follow in the footsteps of their leader.
Later, Piyush Goyal accused the former Maharashtra Chief Minister late Vilasrao Deshmukh of being busy with film producers for his son Riteish Deshmukh, at the time of the brutal 26/11 terrorist attack that shook Mumbai in 2008.
But Narendra Modi apparently did not care about setting a bad precedent. Earlier, he had characterized Congress leader Shashi Tharoor’s wife as a “50-crore girlfriend” and gave former PM Manmohan Singh a “night watchman” moniker. Several BJP leaders derided Rahul Gandhi as “Pappu” in the past, which social media lackeys immediately further propagated and smashed Rahul's image with for over a decade. Ashwini Kumar Choubey reportedly even bad-mouthed Rahul Gandhi as a “schizophrenic” and “naali ka keeda” (gutter worm).
Trying to steal the apparent award going round for the worst personal attacks by BJP leaders, Union Minister Mahesh Sharma joined in and reportedly referred to Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as “Pappu’s Pappi”.
Are you feeling the disgust yet? Wait. There’s more!
In July 2016, Dayashankar Singh, the BJP's then-UP vice-president, reportedly appallingly compared Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati to a “prostitute”. And, in the run-up to the 2014 Delhi election, Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti reportedly said that the voters must choose between “Ramzadon” (those born of Ram) and “Haramzadon” (illegitimately born).
Imagine the level of contempt these leaders carry within them that their words are so very bitter.
But, as I said, almost every party’s leaders have jumped onto the bandwagon of gaali-politics.
If you talk about the Congress, then during the 2007 campaign for the Gujarat Assembly election, Congress President Sonia Gandhi called Modi a "maut ka saudagar" (merchant of death) for the 2002 riots.
Then, there are the likes of Mani Shankar Aiyar who have sparked various controversies with his vile remarks for PM Modi. In the past, he called Modi a “chaiwala”, a “neech kism ka aadmi” and recently, he reportedly addressed him as a “coward”.
Making PM Modi’s background an issue, another Congress leader, Sanjay Nirupam had apparently referred to PM Modi as an “anpadh” (uneducated) and “gawaar” (illiterate).
Last November, Divya Spandana, Congress’ social media chief, tweeted a picture referring to PM Modi as a ‘bird dropping’ where he was standing by the giant statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. And in April this year, she tweeted a meme in which she likened the PM to ‘Adolf Hitler’.
Recently, Trinamool Congress leader Derek O’Brien also ridiculed Amit Shah as “puke-worthy”.
Then, coming to our Delhi Chief Minister and AAP leader Kejriwal, he too had abused PM Modi earlier, saying that he is “a Coward and a psychopath”.
The language of political discourse only deteriorated further when Mayawati too attacked Modi, reportedly saying that he had abandoned his “innocent wife” for “political selfishness”.
Bring back civility, please!
Ridicules, taunts and thinly veiled abuses have always been there in politics, to a degree — but today, we live in an era where political leaders have virtually stopped adhering to democratic norms and social values. Across party lines, whether it is the BJP, the Congress or the BSP, public discourse has become utterly spiteful and totally partisan.
Name-calling, mud-slinging, foul-mouthing others don’t define India’s culture. But, unfortunately, they have become the norm now. And it has led the nation towards a spiral of hatred and despair.
Now, this is a political freefall — and it gives me goosebumps.
This is the reason why good families don’t encourage their children to join politics, especially women.
On the one hand, we talk of promoting India’s culture and traditions. We beat the drum for Banaras at the international level, and want to make it the spiritual hub of the world. On the other hand, we have adopted abuses as a political modus operandi.
Rahul Gandhi has always emphasised the politics of love. He recently tweeted that he is pushing for a new language in politics and urged others to fight on issues and ideology, which is good to hear. But he needs to lead by example. And to achieve this aim, he needs to ensure that all the loose canons in his party should go along with this.
I understand that our politicians have long forgotten courtesy. But much to my chagrin, it is the Mahatma Gandhi’s Congress Party which is unable to hold the torch of Gandhi’s principles — the man who always believed that an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.
It’s about time we brought sabhyata (civility) and samrasta (politeness) back to Indian politics, for they define Indian culture — not abuses.