Modi Has Turned Mani Shankar's Insult Into Political Gold

Published: December 08, 2017 17:47 IST
Mani Shankar Aiyar's ability to score goals against his own team is unparalleled in Indian politics. So, perhaps, is his level of frustration at being sidelined in his party despite his fawning allegiance to the Nehru-Gandhi family. He has a remarkable capacity to offend people, get personal and abusive without provocation. Few have frontally confronted him except the redoubtable who literally kicked him at a public gathering some years ago. Also, in spite of being educated in the best of colleges in India and abroad and having been a career diplomat, Aiyar never learnt to keep his tongue in check. He has indulged in the vilest, low-level accusations against his deemed enemies and they are legion.

By calling Prime Minister Narendra Modi a "neech" (lowly person - which has caste connotations in India,) he has finally crossed the last Lakshman Rekha. Said at the height of the Gujarat poll campaign, Aiyar's remark is probably more damaging than his "chaiwala" jibe of 2014 wherein he offered to set up a stall for Modi outside the AICC conference to sell tea in keeping with his professed background. The huge outcry which followed this remark undoubtedly helped the BJP leader to galvanise India's downtrodden and convincingly portray Aiyar, and by extension, his party, as arrogant, elitist and casteist.

On this occasion, Congress President-designate Rahul Gandhi did not waste time before suspending the foul-mouthed Rajya Sabha MP and former UPA minister from the party. This may not be enough to control the damage for Modi is a master of oratory and has already gone on the offensive interpreting "neech" to be low-caste, saying he is proud of his humble origins.

Till a few days ago, many were baffled by Modi congratulating the Congress party for embracing "Aurangzeb Raj" by anointing Rahul Gandhi as its next president. Aiyar's rejoinder has completely digressed from that comment and handed fresh ammunition to the BJP's campaign in Gujarat. Understandably, Rahul Gandhi, who made a mark through his aggressive campaign this time, must be livid that his hard work has gone down the gutter thanks to Aiyar's gutter-level terminology.

The ex-diplomat, chastened after his President-elect not only distanced the party from the comment but also called for a public apology before suspending Aiyar, has claimed that his Hindi is poor and he did not understand the connotations of his remark. This is rather thick because he speaks chaste Hindi fluently - once he flummoxed parliamentarians by repeatedly using the term "padchinh" to mean footnote - and is never short of derogatory terminology in English, Hindi and Urdu. Clearly he meant what he said for he seems to have a pathological hatred for the Prime Minister.

Aiyar's disgraceful use of the word "neech" has put to shade Prime Minister Narendra Modi's somewhat odd choice of the most bigoted, tyranical and 'kafir'-hating among the major Mughal Emperors of India to mock dynastic succession in the Congress party. Given the relatively genteel persona of that party's president-designate Rahul Gandhi, Aurangzeb would appear an inappropriate comparison. Indeed, Modi could have chosen any King or Queen to drive home the point that merit or proven performance is not the criteria for appointment to high office in a dynastic system.

In the hurly-burly of the hotly-contested Gujarat assembly elections, the BJP's campaigner par excellence was evidently waiting to latch on to the first slip his opponents made. Till Aiyar's remark, Congress had carefully avoided such a slip, remembering the past. It was the offensive "Maut ka Saudagar" allegedly scripted by film lyricist Javed Akhtar but lipped by Sonia Gandhi which gave Modi the breakthrough in 2007. In the recent UP assembly elections, he did not wait for his opponents to give him an opportunity. His own campaign sutras, revolving around shamshan (cremation sites) and kabristan (graveyards) did the trick. "Neech" will surely do it this time.

On the subject of "Aurangzeb Raj", it may be worthwhile to discard the polarising potential of the reference to a bigoted king. "Mian Musharraf" had an instant resonance when used by Modi for the 2007 polls, but Mian Ahmed Patel cannot evoke similar antipathy. Since Modi never uses words or phrases casually on the spur of the moment, there must be deeper meaning to his coinage "Aurangzeb Raj". He never elaborated why he said this, but clearly he wanted to make an oblique reference to the last of who British historians termed the Great Mughals.

School text books in history inform us that Aurangzeb - stentorian to the point of banishing music from his Empire - destroyed himself battling the guerrilla armies of the Marathas, led by their wily warrior chieftain, Chhatrapati Shivaji. Defeated in his long campaign south of the Vindhyas, Aurangzeb returned North dejected and war-weary. With his death in 1707, the Mughal dynasty virtually crumbled, although technically it continued to rule Delhi and its surroundings till the British got rid of what they considered an irritant in 1857. History books hardly record the irrelevant successors of Aurangzeb except in unflattering terms such as the perpetually inebriated Muhammad Shah Rangeela (of 'Dilli Door Ast' fame) or Shah Alam II about whom bards sarcastically wrote: "Att Dilli te Palam, Badshahi Shah-e-Alam" (From Delhi to Palam village runs the writ of the King of the World!).

The point to note here is that Modi could well have meant that the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty will collapse after this and Rahul Gandhi will be the last dynast to head the party as the Congress itself may disappear into oblivion soon. This is the more charitable interpretation of what the Prime Minister meant when he congratulated the Congress party for heralding "Aurangzeb Raj". Clearly, more than unmerited dynastic succession, he may be hoping that Rahul Gandhi will lead the Congress to its final demise.

Till Aiyar ruined its strategy, Congress leaders had carefully skirted the Aurangzeb remark. In any case, sharply attacking Aurangzeb's record could antagonise hard-line Muslims (who traditionally vote Congress) for they are not overly pleased about a road in Delhi named for him being renamed. But electorally, "Aurangzeb Raj" serves Modi's purpose of driving home the point about unmerited succession and lack of internal democracy in the Congress.

"Aurangzeb Raj" may not quite catch on as a phrase to denounce dynastic succession. But in the long run, it is certain to find an echo with analysts and commentators to run down the Congress if Rahul Gandhi fails to revive the party's fortunes. In that event, the analogy of the last powerful Mughal Emperor, after whom there was indeed "the deluge", could well become a shorthand expression of unmerited dynastic elevation to a top political post.

(Dr. Chandan Mitra is a journalist, currently Editor of The Pioneer Group of Publications. He is also former BJP MP, Rajya Sabha.)

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.

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