Political discourse has sunk to a new low during ongoing elections in India, with politicians from across the spectrum in the world’s largest democracy making sometimes abusive and disparaging comments against their rivals.
As elections that began on Apr. 11 draw to an end on May 19, increasingly vitriolic and scurrilous speeches have triggered a debate about the kind of language Indian politicians should be using.
Harjit Bhatia, who teaches political science at Delhi's Jamia Milia University, says that the kind of “disrespectful” language politicians have employed during campaigning has been irresponsible and unbecoming of their public status.
“There should be a decorum which everyone, particularly politicians, should maintain while speaking in public. They need to use a language that is respectful, even towards rivals. We have to have respect for each other and use the words that don’t hurt anyone or anyone’s sentiments,” Bhatia told EFE.
The professor was referring to incidents in which politicians have “crossed the line of decency” in targeting their rivals.
Female leaders, in general, along with a dead former prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, who was killed in a suicide bombing by Tamil militants nearly three decades ago, have been among the victims of the most damaging political slander.
Pamphlets carrying derogatory remarks against a female candidate, Atishi Marlena, were distributed in the national capital, where voting was held on Sunday.
The one-page leaflet describes the Rhodes scholar and Oxford graduate a “prostitute” and mistress of Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia who was called “a cross-breed of a high-class Brahmin man and low-caste woman”.
Marlena alleged that the leaflet, titled “Atishi Marlena- know your candidate”, was the creation of her rival BJP contestant Gautam Ghambir, a cricketer-turned-politician. He has denied the allegation.
But the abuse does not only come from male rivals. Sadhana Singh, a female regional lawmaker of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, was filmed using obscene remarks against her rival and prime ministerial aspirant, Mayawati, a leader of India’s poorest and most downtrodden, who was called “worse than a transgender”.
Another BJP lawmaker, Surendra Singh, also from Uttar Pradesh, made offensive comments in a video that went viral against opposition Indian National Congress chief Rahul Gandhi’s mother, Sonia Gandhi, saying she had been a dancer in Italy before she married Rajiv Gandhi.
A minority leader, Azam Khan, made objectionable comments against actor-turned-politician Jaya Prada who is running as a BJP candidate against the powerful Muslim politician.
Without referring to anyone by name, Khan said it took "you 17 years to understand her reality (but) I could recognize it in 17 days that she wears khaki underwear".
The remarks were seen to be targeting the former film star, who shifted her loyalty towards the right-wing BJP, whose ideologue, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is often seen wearing khaki shorts, the trademark attire of its volunteers.
Khan’s comments became the subject of a poll code scrutiny and he was barred from campaigning for 72 hours.
Much to the chagrin of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s fan base, the Congress began its campaign by calling him a thief, with a popular slogan “Chowkidar Chor Hai” (the watchman is the thief) resonating at almost every opposition poll rally.
Modi came to power on his promise that he would rather act as a watchman against corrupt practices. But Congress alleges that Modi has promoted crony capitalism for the benefit of some 15-20 top industrialists during his five years rule.
The prime minister, who often refers to Congress chief Rahul Gandhi “Pappu”, a colloquial slur for low-intellect, returned the “thief” barb by attacking Gandhi’s father, who he said, “died a No.1 corrupt person in India” because he had allegedly taken kickbacks in a 1987 defense deal of procuring Bofors guns from a Swedish arms manufacturer.
Widely hailed as a martyr, the senior Gandhi, who ruled India from 1984-1989, was brutally killed by a Sri Lankan Tamil suicide bomber on May 21, 1991, when he was 47.
India’s Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, however, defended highlighting the issues during the late Gandhi’s rule in the mid-1980s.
“We respect the dead...We respect our leaders, some martyred leaders,” Sitharaman said in an interaction with foreign correspondents in Delhi, adding the BJP would talk about the “issues of concern for the country...during their governments” that cannot be brushed aside.
But Modi’s attack on a person who was assassinated triggered widespread condemnation, though he defended his remarks and produced a list of alleged abuses the Congress has hurled at him over the years.
“A Congress leader called me 'gandi naali ka keeda' (an insect from a sewer), one leader called me a mad dog, another one called me Bhasmasura (a demon in Hindu mythology with power to turn into ashes anyone whose head he touched). One Congress leader called me a monkey while another compared me with Dawood Ibrahim (India’s underworld don),” Modi said at a public rally.
Praveen Rai, a political analyst with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, a think tank in Delhi, blamed all politicians for the “political sledging” which has shifted focus from the “real issues” concerning a country with rising joblessness.
“Things have of course worsened in the last five years (after Modi came to power). But attacking a dead politician has upset sentiments (of many) and is unacceptable. We should not be speaking ill of the dead,” Rai told EFE.
But he also blamed the Congress for starting it all with its “Modi is a thief” jibe.
“More worrying is the fact that nobody can control it, neither the Election Commission nor the judiciary”, Rai said.
“The politicians, if they want an end to this low-level of political discourse, have to sit together and self-regulate, draw their own limits. Otherwise, it will keep sinking lower and lower every time we face elections.”