Recently the BJP president Amit Shah described Mahatma Gandhi as a "Chatur Baniya"
. Was it meant as criticism and a slight, or as a back-handed compliment? The BJP and its opponents have different views on this. What they need to agree on is that the remark was unnecessary and tasteless. If referring to the Mahatma's political astuteness, surely a better expression could have been used.
A day or two later, a former Congress MP, Sandeep Dikshit, compared the actions and words of the chief of army staff, the leader of the army in the world's largest democracy, to a "sadak ka gunda
(roadside ruffian)". I was left bewildered. Thankfully the Congress politician soon apologised, though the BJP president has not. As Mamata Banerjee, Chief minister of Bengal and head of the Trinamool Congress, tweeted: "When we, in public life, speak about icons of our nation and the world, we must always show utmost respect and sensitivity with language."
The language we use in politics is not always pretty. In the heat and dust of political battles and election campaigns, many of us have tended to cross the line. We need to stop, however, when criticising constitutional authorities. The words an opponent may have used against Pranab Mukherjee when he was the Congress candidate in the 2009 Lok Sabha election cannot be used, for example, while speaking of President Pranab Mukherjee while he is the head of state and the First Citizen of India.
When it comes to iconic figures such as the Father of the Nation or public servants who are apolitical and not in a position to enter into slanging matches with party spokespersons - such as the army chief or a senior civil servant - we must be extremely careful. The BJP has every right to attack the Congress in the run up to state elections in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat, but I'm sure it can do so without firing over the Mahatma's shoulder. Why involve him at all? There has to be a difference between senior political leaders and TRP-chasing news anchors on excitable channels.
This is not always a question of votes. The coming elections will not be a referendum on Mahatma Gandhi and whether or not he belongs to one party or the nation, whether or not the BJP has insulted him, whether or not the Congress is the repository of his legacy. Elections are not going to be a test of what the people feel about the army and how much respect different parties accord to the army. Elections will be decided on a variety of issues that are important to the millions of voters in the states that go to polls. The Mahatma and the army may figure only in a peripheral way. That point is well taken.
But perceptions about a political party and its leadership, about the calibre of its senior members and leading parliamentarians, are formed after listening to them and dissecting the phrases and expressions they use in their regular public discourse. An occasional lapse in an election rally can be overlooked - every party is guilty of this in a loud and raucous democracy. But deliberately mocking one of our national leaders and founding figures, a revered historical or religious icon, or a public official who is important not for who he or she is, but for the position he or she holds, is just not done. This shows a certain arrogance and to my mind tends to put people off.
That is why I believe the BJP president was simply indefensible in dismissing Mahatma Gandhi as simply a "clever" member of a caste or community group historically associated with trade and commerce. A deep-seated aversion to Gandhi-ji
informs the BJP's politics and the party and its leaders do their best to hide this by making politically correct statements. Once in a while, there is a Freudian slip and the real feeling, the inner mocking of the Mahatma, comes out. That is what has happened this time. The party that sought to make merchandise of faith in Lord Rama has deliberately insulted a man who died with Rama's names on his lips. What a pity. What an unpardonable pity.
When senior party leaders and especially a national party president use such terms and such language, it sends a negative signal to spokespersons, younger party colleagues and political supporters and activists. Their idea of what is acceptable and what is not in political discourse is distorted. This contributes to a coarsening of political debate and conversation. And this is something we all need to guard against. But on the BJP lies the greatest responsibility. After even the Mahatma is insulted, are there any limits left for the ruling party?
Political battles are temporary. Institutions such as the Mahatma and the Indian Army - even if it is strange to mention them together - are permanent. They define our nation, and always will. As Mahatma Gandhi said (and this is one of my favourite quotes from him), "When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it - always."
How true. It's a lesson in humility for all of us politicians.Derek O'Brien is leader, parliamentary party Trinamool Congress (RS), and Chief National spokesperson of the party.Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.