The bandwagons thunder along the road to 2014 through a slush of invective-spewing dirt and mud, staining khadi and saffron. The political discourse of this dirtiest election ever fought has taken an irreversible path, hurtling through shrapnel of abuse and personal attacks—‘maut ka saudagar,’ ‘khooni panja,’ ‘poison of power’ and more. Across states, sting operations by politically partisan news outfits, vicious personal attacks thick with allegories of blood and character assassinations form the thesaurus of current electoral rhetoric. Last year, when Gujarat went to the polls upon which rode the prestige of the Congress party’s arch enemy Narendra Modi, Sonia Gandhi’s departure from courtesy to revilement showed that the dynasty and its outfit were veering away from the path of its forebears; in an uncharacteristic broadside against the one she perceives as a Mephistopheles striking a Faustian bargain with Indian secularism, she invoked the spectre of the 2001 riots by calling Modi a “maut ka saudagar.” The speechwriters have abandoned Emily Post for Marquis de Sade, in a sadistic attempt to demolish the enemy with invective.
Modi returned the favour a few months later, naming the Congress election symbol “” in Dongargarh Rajnandgaon on November 7, promising protection from “the bloody hand” should they vote for the lotus—after the Maoist attacks on the Congress state leadership that had led to an internecine vilification campaign within the state Congress party. He had referred to Ajit Jogi’s chief ministership as one led by a “zalim”. In the South, Marxist paterfamilias V S Achyuthanandan wasn’t being cute naming Rahul Gandhi an Amul baby; Karnataka’s BJP president Eswarappa questioned Rahul’s “manhood”; sex cases were splattered all over Kerala’s politics; Naresh Agarwal, senior Samajwadi Party leader in Uttar Pradesh called Modi a “chaiwala” and questioned how “koi chaiwala Hindustan jaise bade desh ko chala sakta” (how can a person of stature of a tea vendor, run a huge and complex country like India). In a retort to Sonia Gandhi calling the BJP “a party of poisonous people,” Modi reminded listeners at an election rally in Banswara, Rajasthan that Rahul Gandhi had once referred to Sonia comparing power to poison. “Madam’s Shehzada once said in Jaipur that his mother told him that power is poison. They ruled the country for almost 50 years since Independence... then who has tasted poison for longer period... it is Congress...then who else can be more poisonous?”
NO HOLDS BARRED
The poison, in this election, has infected all political parties. In Andhra Pradesh, where a bitter battle looms after the Telengana bifurcation, Telugu Desam chief Chandrababu Naidu called YSR Congress scion Jagan Mohan Reddy a “monkey” and a “dog.” A fellow traveller of many ideologies in his chequered career, Raj Babbar’s exhibited his Bollywood prowess through excoriating dialogue, calling Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan “a juggler” who wears colourful underpants. Madhya Pradesh became a bitter battlefield of contumelious cannonade—Digvijay Singh accused Shivraj of being Feku No 2, in a reference to Narendra Modi’s mocking twitter name.
‘Shehzada’ Rahul Gandhi is a favourite target with the saffron Sardar Patel and he hits below the belt. Referring to Sonia’s reported illness, he lashed out “Agar Madam beemar hain to bachche ko kaam do (If madam is unwell, hand over the work to her child).” He didn’t spare former chief minister Ajit Jogi either calling him an “apahij” (cripple)—“He is in wheelchair...,” implying a disabled leader cannot take his party to victory. He compared the Congress leadership with a Bollywood movie where a family introduced their beautiful daughter while finalising a marriage proposal but later switched sisters by bringing in the one with disability (Jogi) for the marriage ceremony. Modi, though widely hailed as an effective orator, has proved time and again that he is not in the mould of A B Vajpayee—who was genteel of tone and disarming in wit. The BJP’s Chhattisgarh campaign is in bad taste, based on Jogi’s infirmity, with posters warning people against the “handicapped” governance of the Congress. Rahul responded by calling the BJP a party of “chor-lootere”. “Kya aap apne mama ke ghar se laakar de rahe ho (Are you getting the funds from your maternal uncle’s home?)” was Modi’s reposte.
MODI VS CONGRESS
The hatred between Modi and the Congress dominates the election. In April, Rashid Alvi called Modi “Yamraj”, and was removed from his post as Congress spokesman (these were early days in the poll campaign and Modi was unsure of his national standing in his own party, and the Congress at that point did not wish to give him importance by taking him head-on). In Delhi, as both mainstream political parties treat the rise of Aam Aadmi Party’s as a cause for worry, a sting operation surfaced indicating that the political outsider was using illegal funds. Party boss Arvind Kejriwal called the tape “doctored” and alleged that `140 crore was given to some media houses to tarnish his image. Undoubtedly, this election is not even a battle between parties, but between personalities who have a polarising effect. No border, however absurd, is inviolable. Even Pakistan became part of political diatribe when Rahul spoke about ISI agents wooing the youth of riot-hit Muzaffarnagar, quoting an intelligence briefing. Facing widespread criticism from both, opponents and Muslim clerics, the Congress leader could not respond convincingly. A vicious battle is being fought on the ground zero of mutual hate between Modi and JD(U) boss Nitish Kumar in Bihar. Though the bomb blasts at Modi’s Hunkar Rally in Patna on October 27 did not harm the BJP’s general, insinuations were made that Nitish wanted his opponent assassinated. A senior BJP leader questioned the Centre’s soft approach to terrorism, “Are we going to be soft on security because some state governments want to be seen as soft on terror for collateral reasons?” alluding that Nitish Kumar’s vote bank was encouraging terror to flourish in Bihar. Ironically Nitish indirectly blamed Modi for the fiasco, accusing him of “criminal negligence of security” and said terrorists in a way helped BJP in its “otherwise flop” rally. Modi was quick to point out that the chief minister—whom he calls “a backstabber and traitor”—did not visit the families of those killed and chose to “feast” at a party meeting. Oblivious to the irony, Kumar retorted he was attending a yoga convention.
COURTESY TO CUDGELS
The contorted asanas of political yoga practiced by the current crop of demagogues contrast sharply with the behaviour of many stalwarts. A few days ago, Sharad Pawar gave reporters the sort of polished quip that is in danger of becoming extinct: where subtlety and irony join together in a perfect union with context. After a visit to a doctor, said the Maratha strongman with a wide grin to waiting journalists, “The test conducted on me proves that I have both, head and heart.” A random piece of self-deprecating humour? No, uttered by Pawar, it perhaps carried extra freight: an oblique allusion to the criticism he was copping, as agriculture minister, for the spiralling food prices. At 73, Pawar is fast becoming the representative of an older political culture where even bitter animosities were marked by serviceably polite and civil exchanges, if not actually elevated by wit and mature sarcasm. Everyone abided by basic minimum courtesies; there was an inviolable protocol, a tacit line of control. Says BJP spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman, “Ideally political discourse should maintain standards so that people don’t lose faith in leaders that they are not upto the mark. But after a point, if attacks continue unabated; expressions are couched in metaphors, then your followers ask you why are we not reacting.we explain to them that this could be dirty tricks department of the other party. So sometimes we have to reply. However restraint should be there from all sides.”
Beset by scandals, the first sign of the purple times to come were visible during Anna Hazare’s fast in April 2011 for the Lok Pal Bill. The then Congress spokesman and current I&B minister Manish Tewari accused Anna of being corrupt “from head to toe.” He had also referred to Anna’s associates as a combination of “armchair fascists, overground Maoists, closet anarchists funded by invisible donors.” Kapil Sibal, one of the interlocutors appointed to deal with the Anna brigade called the aged freedom fighter a “Pied Piper.” In the current atmosphere of, even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh isn’t being spared—his opponents have dragged his name into the Coalgate affair.
It takes only the briefest of glances to see the epidemic nature of bad language in politics—either in the form of personalised slurs, or verbal violence that Varun Gandhi’s notorious speech in Pilibhit or the TMC-Left exchanges in West Bengal are illustrative of, and devoid of grace. In last week’s civic body elections in Odisha, state Finance Minister Prasanna Acharya of the BJD threatened voters: “I am Odisha’s finance minister. Funds are in my hands. If you vote for the Congress, I shall lock the funds.” About a fortnight ago, Karnataka’s former deputy CM K S Eshwarappa called the Prime Minister a “hijra” over bilateral relations with Pakistan. “The Congress lacked manhood in the past, they don’t have it now either. Only those who have drunk their mother’s milk will have manhood.” Sex CDs have forced ministers out of office, shady operators are linked to the chief minister’s office in Kerala. Former PM Deve Gowda called the then chief minister B S Yeddyurappa a “b****d” and a “sonofa****h.” The irascible Mamata Banerjee who took pleasure in humiliating the prime minister showed her political nature, asking “Should I beat up the prime minister?” over rising fertiliser prices. “I would like to ask Mamata what her rate would be (for rape)?” said former CPI(M) minister, Anisur Rehman. Historian Ramachandra Guha sees it in terms of the new competitiveness: “The political animosity is too much. That is why the level of discourse too has come down so,” he says. “It’s not a normal electoral battle…but we can take heart from the fact that it’s no better in the US. In fact, we have come to match their levels.”
“When there is nothing positive to campaign, they (leaders) resort to personal vilification,” says P C Chacko, AICC spokesperson.
The composition of the political class reflects in the deteriorating nature of political attacks—criminal cases are pending against 30 per cent of Lok Sabha MPs and 17 per cent of Rajya Sabha members. Naturally, venom has given way to wit, and hatred to humour. In Parliament, Bharatiya Jan Sangh founder Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, a practiced Nehru baiter of the 1950s said, “I saw with my own eyes how powerfully the resources of the government can be made to operate for the purpose of winning the elections. I can tell the Prime Minister some time later. He does not know that money and wine played their part in many a sphere.”
The era of Nehru and Indira had no shortage of personalities but their endorsement and rejection were grounded in issue-based political debates. The BJP grew out of the strong anti-Congress ideological pool. Modi is its inheritor, trying to mould the party in his own image as the now ubiquitous masks show; idolatry minus ideology is the mood de jour at his rockstar-like receptions. It’s not just the traditional BJP votebase that’s rooting for him, but sections of the apolitical middle class, too, which is the new claimant on a newborn political space. Social scientist Ashsis Nandy says, “Sarcasm is misunderstood now. Only crude and direct language works. There’s no scope of subtlety.” “The middle class has expanded in terms of money, but their value system has persistently eroded. Many people in public life are first-generation leaders…they don’t have the political vocabulary.” A senior BJP think-tanker was inclined to read it in terms of free speech. “There can be no ‘standard’ for electioneering,” he says. “We can’t have a situation where the EC decides the political discourse and intimidates leaders and parties. Even the most outrageous ideas get play. We can’t move towards a controlled democracy.”
SOPHISTICATION IS OUT
Outrageous ideas notwithstanding, outrageous comments were examples of political wit. Nehru, when confronted with the red flag of the undivided Communist Party on a trip to Kerala, quipped: “What is this foreign flag doing here?” When Nehru’s finance minister T T Krishnamachari called Feroze Gandhi a “lapdog” of the PM, he responded with elan: “Sir, you are a pillar of society. And today I will do to you what a dog does to a pillar.” After India was trounced by China in 1962, and lost a large chunk of territory Nehru remarked in Parliament, “There is really no loss, though our territory has been annexed. Not a blade of grass grows there.” Congress MP Mahavir Tyagi asked the speaker if Nehru could to remove his cap. Nehru did so. Tyagi said, “Mr Speaker Sir, not a single blade of hair grows on Mr Nehru’s head. So let us cut it off, it is of no consequence and no loss to us.” Now, not a single Congressman would dare challenge a Gandhi in public.
Indira was vitriolic towards her enemies, even throwing them in jail but she rarely launched personal attacks on her opponents. When the Bofors scandal was gathering momentum against her son Rajiv Gandhi—whose majority in Parliament remains unbeaten— VP Singh was called a Jaichand. Rajiv made the phrase “Naani yaad dila denge” part of Indian political lampoon.
The Congressman lampooning the reputation of his own party may well be Beni Prasad Verma. His latest on his former boss and current bête noire Mulayam Singh Yadav comprised words seemingly designed for the front-benchers: “Lootera, goonda.” But all may not be lost. Recently, the Leader of the Oppositon in the UP Vidhan Sabha, Swami Prasad Maurya, sarcastically hinted that chief minister Akhilesh Singh Yadav had too many bosses to be able to run the government efficiently. Gesturing towards Mohammed Azam Khan and other senior SP leaders, he said “Is liye to main CM se kehta hoon ki chachaaon se saavdhaan rahein (That is why I tell CM to beware of uncles). You should respect uncles but shouldn’t give them the liberty to rule over you.” Laughing uproarously Azam Khan asked Maurya: “What is your take on chachis (aunties)?” Maurya retorted, “A good nephew who respects his uncles will give more respect to his aunties.” In the bonfire of inanities that is Indian politics today, respect is being lost in the ruins of the past.
(With bureau inputs)
It is not yet clear whether Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi was briefed by an Intelligence Bureau (IB) officer on the ISI planning to recruit Muzaffarnagar riot victims, but the above incidents reveal the rampant misuse of Central and state intelligence agencies by the ruling parties to spy on their political opponents. These agencies have often been accused of carrying out illegal acts that go beyond standard norms of intelligence gathering. An intelligence operative said there are no democratic ideals when it comes to political espionage.
Revealing the modus operandi, the operative said if an intelligence agency wants to target ‘A’ politician, it will not directly monitor his or her phone; instead some aide’s phone will be put under surveillance. “On an average, eight of 10 conversations will be actionable intelligence related to the politician. For at least three months, the surveillance will go unchecked as per the rules. However, technical interception is used only during critical times like elections etc.”
Any officer of joint director and above level can order monitoring of phone. The IB, fondly called the ‘Eyes and Ears of the Government’, with strength of over 18,000 trained spies on its rolls is responsible to ‘inform’ the government about ongoing political activities. However, the IB’s job is not restricted to assessing mere political scenario. It has been extended to gather human intelligence (Humint) on political opponents, their activities and future strategy of political parties.
“Politically sensitive intelligence is impossible through Humint. You can only produce superficial information about the leader’s movement and meetings etc. In Humint, the effort is to recruit disgruntled elements to generate critical information,” sources said.
The misuse of espionage network which started during Indira Gandhi’s regime has now become an accepted norm. In a charged political atmosphere, the main job of Humint network is to collect trends, prepare a report on the leader’s weaknesses, holy-unholy nexuses and overall assessment of Opposition parties etc.
“The agency’s job is to provide daily reports for government consumption,” a senior intelligence official said, adding that technical interception was restricted by the government after the furore over NTRO’s alleged snooping on senior politicians.
It is learnt that at least five off-air interception machines and four other interception platforms, which were acquired for `128 crore, were grounded by the government in 2011. The reason, an officer said, is to avoid any future political controversy.
However, he admitted that dirty tricks departments in the intelligence agencies are not accountable to the people or Parliament which is evident from the fact that a series of phone-tapping scandals kicked up row in the last five years. In 2008, the DMK-led Tamil Nadu government was accused of spying on Opposition leaders and some prominent journalists. The state government was forced to set up a committee to inquire into the issue. During the same period, NTRO’s off-air monitoring vans parked strategically in Lutyens’ Delhi, intercepted phone conversation of CPI(M) leader Prakash Karat, Congress leader Digvijaya Singh and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar along with several other government officials. In May, the Kerala government too came under the scanner for allegedly tapping phones of Opposition and disgruntled Congress leaders.
Recently, the Congress mounted attack on Narendra Modi alleging his government illegally intercepted 93,000 calls in seven months targeting Opposition leaders and his critic. Although the allegation was refuted, the misuse of state intelligence for snooping on a young architect was revealed by a private news portal.
Tap and snoop
2010: NTRO nets millions of conversations, including that of senior politicians
2011: Gujarat Congress alleges phone-tapping of Opposition leaders by state’s BJP regime
2011: BJP-led Himachal government accused of tapping Congress leaders’ phones
2012: West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee accuses UPA government of monitoring her phones
2013: Private detectives and a Delhi Police constable arrested for illegally procuring Arun Jaitley’s call details