In theatre, the theme is the soul of the story, which moves the gallery to claps or catcalls. Like every play, elections, too, have a theme. In India’s first election, it was newfound national pride. Others followed as the decades rolled by: poverty and war in the 1970s, assassination and corruption in the 1980s, religion in the 1990s and development in the Noughties. In this grimly fought, cacophonically vicious election, where the Congress party is combating extinction, Narendra Modi is fighting for New Delhi job and the regional parties are testing their scales for the best pounds of flesh, the leitmotif is invective.
Politics without sarcasm is like Ram Leela without makeup; it spices up campaigns, engages the audience and illustrates the leader’s wit. When sarcasm descends to contempt and contempt becomes abuse, the engagement reflects the quality of a culture. In the introduction to his book Dishonourable Insults, British MP Greg Knight writes “vitriol, insult, impudence and audacity are all part of a good debater’s armoury”. Perhaps inspired by the geographical associations of The Merchant of Venice, the first salvo was fired in 2007 by Sonia Gandhi who called Narendra Modi the Merchant of Death (maut ka saudagar). In 2013, Modi responded by calling the Congress symbol a khooni panja (bloodstained hand). Indian politics has lost its sophistication. Indira Gandhi’s sarcasm was refined, “My grandfather once told me that there were two kinds of people: those who do the work and those who take the credit. He told me to try to be in the first group; there was much less competition.”
Competition in abusing Modi is now the sycophantic karma of the Congress. Former Congress spokesman Rashid Alvi put a spin on Sonia’s death metaphor by calling Modi “Yamraj riding a buffalo”. Perhaps frightened by Modi holograms during a visit to Ahmedabad, Digvijaya Singh christened him Ravan. Mythology contradicted metaphors when the erudite Salman Khurshid called Modi a monkey. Trying to keep his insecure perch in the Gandhi family tree, Mani Shankar Aiyar resorted to zoology, slamming Modi as a snake and a scorpion. Since imitation is the best form of flattery, he also called Modi “asatya ka saudagar” (merchant of falsehood). History and mythology bubble in the syntax of obloquy—the BJP challenger has been called Bhasmasur and Khalnayak. The animal kingdom was not spared—Congress MP Hussain Dalwai referred to Modi as a mouse and Beni Prasad Verma snarled that he was a dog. Manish Tewari compared Modi with Dawood Ibrahim. Congress MP Shantaram Naik likened Modi to Hitler and Pol Pot. Renuka Chowdhury exhibited her medical knowledge by calling NaMo the Namonitis virus. The desperation of the Congress is evident as it stoops to personal attacks, with Modi’s parentage and marital status being questioned and dubious conversations leaked. The rise of a strong leader provokes political leaders to vilification just as a bully resorts to invective instead of force. In Andhra Pradesh, the Congress called Jagan Mohan Reddy a looter, dacoit and pickpocket, and all parties have personalised abuse, calling foes drunken monkeys and debauched drunkards. Karnataka BJP chief even referred to Manmohan Singh as a eunuch.
Though not in India, Knight observes that with the advent of television and mass media, words of abuse have become muted with politicos fearing the outing of their inner Mr Hydes. Instead, it’s the audience that ridicules politicians’ boners. Even Abraham Lincoln could be caustic. In 1863, when General “Fighting Joe Hooker” lost a crucial battle, he remarked “the trouble with Hooker is that he has got his headquarters where his hindquarters ought to be”. Contempt is a greater weapon than abuse; British statesman Edmund Burke was scathing about his opponents: “They defend their errors like they defend their inheritance.” Indian politics is fast forgetting its political inheritance of its Independence era leaders who preferred dialogue to dirt. Benjamin Disraeli famously said, “With words we govern men.” Frightened by the sheer force and centrality that Modi has brought to this election devoid of other overwhelming personalities, his opponents are frightened. Hence with abuse, they seek to govern once more.