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September 17, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Vir Sanghvi

Crooks and Gucci loafers

We are a people who believe in ashagun (bad omen). After Sonia entered the Gandhi family, she has brought only death. First, Sanjay Gandhi, then Indiraji, and then Rajiv.''

Who said that? Some nutcase on the fringes of the political spectrum? Sadhvi Rithambara or some deranged maniac? No, not quite. If Outlook magazine is to be believed, then the quote comes from a speech by Sunderlal Patwa, vice-president of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Patwa was campaigning in Misrod village in his Hoshangabad constituency. As far as I know, his remarks have not been disowned by his party, even though Outlook, which reported them, has been on the stands for a week. And nor has Patwa, a former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, made any attempt to make amends.

What is it about the Madhya Pradesh BJP and superstition? Rajmata Vijayeraje Scindia is too old and ill to campaign now, but who can forget her immortal comments on the sati of the all-too-mortal Roop Kanwar? Needless to say, Her Highness thought that Roop Kanwar's leap into the flames was a glorious act. None of her colleagues in the BJP dared contradict her.

(But then, nobody ever contradicts the Rajmata. In 1980, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee wanted to say that he thought that the newly formed BJP stood for Gandhian socialism, the old lady began to froth at the mouth and had the phrase deleted from all statements. Vajpayee's protests counted for little perhaps because chaddiwallahs are not keen on socialism, and even less keen on Gandhi).

People who say this campaign has been marked by a new low in the level of political discourse are probably right, but let's not kid ourselves: the level of discourse has never been particularly high. Right from the time that the Janata Party lampooned the hapless N D Tiwari as 'na nar na nari' (neither man nor woman -- which was clearly unfair, whatever else you may say about Tiwariji, his sexual prowess is not in doubt), to the time seven years later when H L Bahuguna put up posters of Amitabh Bachchan in drag (from the movie Laawaris) in an effort to discredit his opponent, there is a long and dishonourable tradition of name calling in Indian politics.

If anyone makes a joke about a rival, you can rest assured it will be in poor taste. Gone are the days when Jawaharlal Nehru could refer to Charan Singh as a great leader of the 18th century, or the days when Piloo Mody, keeping in mind the Speaker's ruling to refrain from unparliamentary language, referred to the then food minister, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed as 'Mr Ruddin Ali Ahmed'.

The nearest we got to wit was when Rajiv Gandhi used Doon School-type jokes, but even then these usually fell flat because nobody understood the context. For instance, who in Alimuddin Street knew what he was talking about when he said that the only Marx the Communist Party of India-Marxist could be said to be following was Groucho? ('Ei Groucho ti kay?' was probably the most common response.)

The problem with being witty in Indian politics is that all jokes are only funny within a context. When Mani Shankar Aiyar described the National Front as the National Affront, outraged members of the opposition denounced him for a vicious personal attack. But when V P Singh described Amitabh Bachchan as 'Rajiv Gandhi ka tota ' this was regarded as elevated political discourse.

Nor do politicians understand any joke that has a degree of subtlety. When Morarji Desai announced that India would reintroduce prohibition, Simon Winchester wrote in The Guardian that the prime minister's own drinking habits were entirely above board, even though 'they may occasionally give his kidneys the odd feeling of déjà vu.' According to Winchester, nobody in the Janata government protested, largely because nobody understood what he meant.

What politicians do object to are derisory nicknames. I gather that Arun Nehru was incensed when Dumpy Ahmed, in the early eighties, took to referring to him as Appu after the baby elephant who was the mascot of the Asian Games. (But then, Nehru is particularly sensitive. He was once outraged by an otherwise innocuous story in Sunday which said, 'It is easier for Arun Nehru to pass through the eye of a needle, than it is to get a straight answer out of the prime minister.')

Similarly, L K Advani took exception to Mani Shankar Aiyar's constant references to him as Uncle Walrus, which I would have thought was quite unobjectionable. And even Rajiv Gandhi objected when Sunday started calling his cronies the Gucci loafers.

'But I have never owned a pair of Gucci loafers in my life,' he protested. 'The point, prime minister,' I explained, 'is not that you and your friends wear Gucci loafers, but that you are Gucci loafers.'

Being Rajiv Gandhi, he had the grace to see the joke and laugh. Sonia Gandhi shares Rajiv's sense of humour. When S S Ahluwalia wrote her a letter in Italian (it read, in part, 'since you haven't replied to my previous letters, I have come to the conclusion that perhaps you don't read English. So, I am now writing to you in Italian') she thought this was hugely funny, and showed the letter to her colleagues. She is also open to jokes about her accent, largely because her family teases her mercilessly.

But, more seriously, three points need to be made about the current level of discourse. The first is that if you call a man a crook, his party doesn't mind. For much of the last month, the Congress has been engaged in the futile task of trying to prove that Vajpayee has made money out of telecom or sugar. After a record of 40 years in politics, during which not the slightest breath of financial scandal has attached itself to Vajpayee, nobody is going to take this charge seriously. The Congress might as well argue that Mother Teresa was a junkie, or that Jyoti Basu is a CIA agent -- both propositions are equally absurd.

Oddly enough, I seem to be the only person outraged by the Congress's readiness to smear a clean man. The BJP acted as though this was par for the course. But, when the Congress suggested that the government had known about the Kargil incursions but had deliberately refused to act, all of the BJP jumped up and down and shouted ''unfair.''

What is the moral in this? My colleague, Rudrangshu Mukherjee says, quite accurately, that as far as Indian political parties are concerned, they think that it is okay to be a crook, but that anything else is beyond the pale of decency.

The second point worth making is this: give a politician a chance and he will immediately impugn the personal life of his rival. Some of this is plain sexism: I am astonished that Jaya Jaitly, whom I like and respect, can defend George Fernandes's indefensible sexist statement about Sonia's only contribution to the country being her two children. Similarly, the kind of things M Karunanidhi says about J Jayalalitha are plainly sexist. Even G K Moopanar refers to her as 'the dancing girl.' (Surely, if you're going to attack Jayalalitha, there are thousands of grounds on which you can go for her; why bring sex into it?)

Nothing, however, has been as nauseating as the behaviour of the Congress in this regard. It brought up the Shivani murder case to slander Pramod Mahajan without any proof. Rajesh Khanna sunk to his usual loathsome level to attack Vajpayee's personal life. And most surprising of all, even Ghulam Nabi Azad, who should know better, badmouthed innocent bystanders who had nothing to do with politics. It is not enough for Kapil Sibal to condemn these statements; Ghulam Nabi should apologise.

My third point is that we in the media are at least partly to blame for the level of personal abuse in this election. Because there are no issues, and the campaign is utterly boring, journalists look for spicy headlines. Generally, any politician with a big mouth can safely be misquoted -- most people will believe he said what the papers reported. Somebody like Mahajan who is not known for moderation in speech suffers the most.

You can argue that Mahajan should not have said: 'If you want to vote for a foreigner, then why Sonia Gandhi? Why not Bill Clinton, Tony Blair or Monica Lewinsky?' But to paraphrase this statement as 'Mr Mahajan equated Sonia Gandhi with Monica Lewinsky' is unfair to both Mahajan and the reader, who deserves to get the full quote. Similarly, it is now quite clear that Sonia Gandhi did not call Vajpayee a traitor. But newspapers thought it looked good in the headlines and paraphrased a general statement about sugar imports from Pakistan being anti-national in a manner that twisted the meaning of what Sonia Gandhi had said.

If there is a moral in all this, then it is this: we are all equally guilty. The Congress should know better than to impugn Vajpayee's personal life. The kind of statements that people like Patwa make are clearly beneath contempt. And we in the media should be a little more responsible in our paraphrasing.

But I am not sure that voters are any less to blame. Ask anybody about the decline in the standards of discourse and they will get self-righteous and make politically correct noises. But once they have finished being pious, they will ask, ''What did Rajesh Khanna really say?'' ''Did Mahajan really say something about Monica Lewinsky and Sonia?'' And so on.

The truth is that Indian politics has ceased to be about issues. It has ceased to be about the things that matter. It focuses instead on gossip, image and innuendo. And all of us share the responsibility.

Vir Sanghvi

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