As India enters into its final round of its 7-phase 17th general election, the ruling BJP prime minister, Narendra Modi, and the leader of the main Opposition party, Congress’ Rahul Gandhi, no longer pretend, as they once did, to civilities in their campaign speeches. The gloves have been off for sometime. The masks have followed suit.
At a recent speech in Chandrapur in Maharashtra, for instance, Gandhi typically called Modi a chor (thief). His favourite phrase for describing Modi is, Chowkidar (guard) chor hai. There was a time when Modi used to qualify himself as the man who guarded India from all internal and external threats. For a while he and his party had derived appreciable mileage from the subliminal association that the word conjured up. About a year ago, the word — and Modi’s world along with it — turned. The Rafale jet scandal, involving a 600 billion-rupee deal with the French defence firm Dassault and alleged interventions by the Prime Minister’s Office on behalf of the business tycoon, Anil Ambani, came to the fore. Gandhi was quick to seize the opportunity and inverted Modi’s image with chowkidar chor hai.
The phrase caught on. So much so, Modi issued instructions to all his cabinet ministers to add prefix ‘chowkidar’ to their twitter handles so whatever mud was being flung his way was evenly shared. According to an analysis by the India Today group, in his Chandrapur speech, Gandhi used the word chor 18 times. The duration of the speech was 35 minutes.
This must hurt. Modi has always been at pains to be marketed as self-sacrificing and utterly honest. Another favourite word that Gandhi uses with abandon to describe the Modi dispensation is jumla, which means false promise. Modi is rather fond of guaranteeing heaven to all; indeed, he often gives the impression that he has delivered it if only the people took a good look around them since his coming to power in 2014. This self delusion is ironically both the source of his conviction as an epochal leader and a lack of necessary introspection.
For his part, Modi in his speeches refers to Gandhi, who is 50 years old, as an immature boy, a naif. The roughly equivalent but perhaps more pejorative Hindi term is Pappu. Modi uses the world liberally, as does his cohorts, like Amit Shah, the BJP president.
Modi barely makes a speech without a humiliating reference to the Nehru-Gandhi family. They are referred to as the Pariwar. The pariwar, he nearly shouts, has robbed India of its riches. His ire is particularly reserved for Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first PM and Gandhi’s grandfather. Sonia Gandhi whose Italian origin is never spared either, and, nor of course, Gandhi himself. The Italian blood in Gandhi is made out to be some kind of an evil blot. Recently, a BJP leader and a lawyer, Subramanian Swamy, filed a case challenging the credentials of Gandhi as an Indian citizen. It must come as little relief for Gandhi that Swamy is a serial litigant.
The increasing virulence of the speeches of both leaders is not limited just to personal attacks of the most damaging kind. Gandhi has with some success undermined the credibility of the Prime Minister’s Office at a time when the voter’s trust in institutions is likely to be an all-time low. Modi, for his part, often plays the divisive, majority (Hindu) appeasing card. Recently he described Gandhi as having run away to Wayanad in Kerala because the district is dominated by Christians and Muslims rather than Hindus.
Gandhi, in addition to running from his traditional constituency of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh, is also standing for elections from Kerala, a relatively secular place compared to North India. Last week, Amit Shah said in a public speech that ‘Wayanad looks like Pakistan.’ The inference is that Gandhi’s election prospects is better in an ‘enemy’ country. The provocation for Shah’s simile is the display of green flags (belonging to the Indian Union Muslim League) on the occasion of Gandhi’s filing for nomination.
Both BJP and Congress have complained to the Election Commission that the respective leaders are violating the so called Model Code of Conduct. As of last week, both leaders have been given clean chits as well. But the fact is, no matter who wins — the BJP claims they will with their allies cross 300 seats in the 545-seat Parliament; the Congress sees a clear chance of forming a government — the personal dislike between Modi and Gandhi has grown to be visceral. It will be very difficult for either of them to forget or forgive; their war is not likely to end even after the results are in. And that’s not such a nice thing to happen to India. Because, for at least now, these are the country’s only two mass leaders.
C.P. Surendran is a senior journalist based in India.