Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar calling Narendra Modi a ‘neech admi’ simply cannot be accepted even by those who have no love for the prime minister and his fondness for rather freely using derogatory terms for his opponents, particularly Rahul Gandhi, the new president of the Indian National Congress. According to an unwritten but widely accepted code abuses will not be hurled at the prime minister even when disliked by many.
The kind of language heard in some of the recent poll campaigns in the country can only be called gutter speech, the language that you would avoid using in public at all costs. We may call our opponent or tormentor ‘neech’ or something similar within the confines of our homes and in front of our own people, but would refrain from using such expressions in public.
Aiyar has offered apology and the Congress party has suspended him. But that is unlikely to restore some decency in poll campaigns. A clue has been provided by the ruling BJP which rejected Aiyar’s apology and Congress party’s swift action against him, calling it a ‘tactical’ move. Since the BJP does not believe in making any ‘tactical’ move after one of its leaders has put his foot in his mouth—a frequent occurrence, in fact—there is going to be no decline in indecent campaigning and pre-poll speeches.
That said, it has to be added that the run up to the Gujarat state assembly poll has seen perhaps the worst in poll campaigning. It has been spiteful and full of venom, to say the least. There has been no dearth of overflow of invectives, with wordy duals between Modi and Rahul hitting the headlines almost on a daily basis. It was a competition between Modi’s sharp tongue and Rahul’s newly found sarcastic wit which took the bristling Modi camp by surprise.
The campaign in Gujarat exposed the fact, not often discussed or decried enough, that Indian politicians feel that the most effective campaign is one that showers insults at opponents, with wild charges thrown around and facts twisted to suit the narrative. Social media has made sure that the campaign is never lifted to any level of decorum.
The echo heard during the Gujarat poll campaign was that it was a battle between Modi and Rahul Gandhi, not between the BJP, ruling the state for over two decades, and the Opposition Congress party. The popular social media campaign, ‘Vikas gando thai gayo’ (development has gone crazy), did not look out of place when ‘Vikas’ figured only as a second thought in most of the campaign speeches, including, sorry to state, by the prime minister.
Leave aside the agrarian and unemployment problems in Gujarat, most of the state has been witnessing a sort of uprising against the ruling party by the Patidars and the hitherto underprivileged sections, not to mention the grievances of the Muslim minority. The so-called Gujarat model of development has been contested by many economists. Official statistics show that Gujarat lags behind many states in social indices.
These are issues that ought to have prominently figured in speeches by Modi and the army of BJP stalwarts who swarmed over Gujarat for days. Calling opponents ‘Shahzada’ or the progenies of Aurangzeb and Babur does not satisfy those who seek answers to serious issues facing the state.
So intense appeared to be the urge to let loose verbal barrage on the Opposition that the BJP had no time to release the poll manifesto before the first phase of the polls. Election manifestos may have lost their significance because they are no more followed once the party has come to power, but at least the manifesto gives a clue about where the party stands on vital issues.
Another advantage, or call it utility, of the manifesto is that it can compel the campaigners and candidate to dwell on serious issues more than on coining new catch phrases and acronyms to provoke the rivals and lure the voter. Tall claims, self-glorification and speaking nastily of opponents may spice up the campaign but it robs the campaign of seriousness and leads to retaliation in the same style.
Apart from problems relating to economics, arguably one of the priorities in Gujarat has to be restoring communal harmony which was ruptured almost irreparably 15 years ago. A systematic pre-poll campaign could have contributed to achieving that to some extent. Instead, we heard a candidate candidly saying that Gujarat needs to have fewer of those ‘dadhi and turban wallahs’.
This sort of statement incites hatred, distrust and fear. The election commission’s model code prohibits that. The model code bars many malpractices, but it has made no difference to the ugliness in poll campaigns. Perhaps the punishment for violation of the code is not seen as deterrent enough. But merely providing for stronger punishment cannot assure attaining the objective.
To break new ground in keeping poll campaigns within the bounds of decency perhaps what could be tried is outlining a new ‘moral’ code of conduct for the polls with a very clear message that its violation would straightaway lead to disqualification of candidates. If there are legal hurdles in preparing a legislation of this nature they should be examined.
Be sure that if the poll campaigns continue to be marred by ugliness for another year or so that will become the standard practice, a norm that lower the image of the country and devalue democracy. Subsequently, nothing would be able to undo the damage caused. Poll campaign in foreign countries can also be dirty—recall the US Presidential poll a year ago—but that argument cannot be used to let poll campaigns in India continue to be as repulsive as it has been in Gujarat. India and the US are not exactly conjoined twins.