Campaigning in the 2007 Gujarat assembly polls, Sonia Gandhi described Narendra Modi as maut ki saudagar, or merchant of death. Tut, tut, tut, exclaimed the genteel people of India. That was quite unladylike.
Modi used the below-the-belt hit to the hilt. He went around with a look of injured innocence, and asked his people, “kya mein maut ka saudagar hoon?” (Do I look like a merchant of death?) And then postured to Sonia, “Sonia-behen, mein toh mat ka saudagar hoon.” (Sister Sonia, I am a merchant of ideas).
Look at the phraseology. Even when being maligned, Modi showed mellowed restraint. Verily gentlemanly, especially to a lady! He called her “behen”, a term used by good and decent Gujaratis when they address or speak of any woman of good repute.
Modi won that election. Positivity won that election. Genteelness won that election.
In 2014, the two sides began being evenly matched in malice, but soon the Congress took a lead in being low. If Modi mocked at Manmohan’s “love letters” to Nawaz Sharif, Mani Shankar Aiyar mocked at Modi’s teaboy teenhood. Modi again played the injured innocent, launched a shrewd chai-pe-charcha (teatime talk) campaign, and went on to win the polls hands down.
Sonia seems to have learnt her lesson. Her electoral discourse has since been dignified, and her political conduct restrained—much like a quiet Calpurnia if she were in the middle of a Roman mob.
The shoe is now on the other foot. Modi, quite contrary, has since been ranting and raging. Sonia is no longer behen to him, but one to be mocked at as ‘Madam-ji’. In one election speech in Rajasthan he even made fun of her widowhood. Her son is pappu (simpleton), shahzada (crown prince), or naamdaar (dynast)—terms that draw laughter from the lumpen, but will not draw votes from the decent folk.
Indeed, one statement or an odd foul phrase would not win or lose an election. But the amount of vitriol that is pumped into the air can make or unmake a campaign. In 1989, Rajiv Gandhi called the opposition limpets and traitors (Raja Jaichands and Mir Jaffer), and painted them in advertisements as serpents and scorpions. He roundly lost the polls.
Modi’s campaign managers are making the same mistake. As THE WEEK reported two weeks ago, the entire tone of Modi and company in the just-concluded polls to the three assemblies in Madhya Bharat had been one of political arrogance and rhetorical sarcasm, directed not just against the withering-and-ageing Congress and its immature pretender of a crown prince, but even at the revered national icons of India that is Bharat. A sarcasm that outraged many a voting Indian soul, steeped in ancient Indian values of humility and self-denial. Pride and hate, they told their netas through their vote, are not values cherished by this ancient civilisation.
Yet no one seems to have learnt any lesson. The tone for the 2019 round is now being set, and it seems to be laden with the lead of vitriol. The Congress continues on its chowkidar chor hai line without showing proof of any chori by Modi. From the BJP front, Modi and Amit Shah are leading the war of viciousness. Having nabbed alleged arms dealer Christian Michel, Modi is calling him the Gandhi family’s raazdaar (confidant), and dropping innuendos about Quattrocchi “mama” and Christian Michel “uncle” whose diary, he says, contains Sonia’s name. Shah has discovered that Michel’s notes from custody to his lawyer were meant for Sonia, when even his interrogators have not found how.
Netas, ladies and gentlemen, the Indian voter is a decent soul. He abhors vitriol.