No political pundit could have predicted that the last course served up in Gujarat campaign would be mushrooms.
The Gujarat campaign has been through many twists and turns, worthy of a soap opera. It has had everything – sex, religion, politics, history and melodrama.
The Hardik Patel sex CD provided the sex. We got a dose of religion, courtesy the Somnath Temple. There was a history lesson about Mughal mindsets and Aurangzeb raj. And what’s a good soap without saturation doses of maan-abhimaan? We were served double helpings of that with a miffed Manmohan Singh demanding an apology and the “neech”-jerk attack on Narendra Modi. Oh, and there was a seaplane too because who does not like some hawa hawai.
But no political pundit could have predicted that the last course served up in this campaign would be mushrooms. Alpesh Thakor, the young OBC leader running on a Congress ticket, has done the honours.
He says he’s heard from a source that “Modi-sahab” likes his mushrooms from Taiwan, that the mushrooms cost Rs 80,000 a piece, and he eats five a day. So, you do the math. Once “sources” told us about hawala deals, financial scams, riot engineering, and scandalous affairs. Now they tell us about mushrooms.
Even better Thakor recalls that in his old photographs Modi-ji is dark like him. But now he says he’s rosy-cheeked like a tomato.
These must be magic mushrooms indeed.
Cue the outrage. After the “neech” remark, now a new slander against the Prime Minister! Television channels have predictably gone to town about it. TedX speaker Shehzad Jai Hind asks, “Is he serious? Did RG not say Congress won’t get personal? Is this an issue of Gujarat?”
India Today has done an in-depth investigation and discovered that the Prime Minister does like his mushrooms, but he likes the Himalayan Guchchi variety, which can be quite pricey because it cannot be cultivated. Its price can go up to Rs 30,000 a kg, which still makes the Guchchi a bargain compared to these Gucci-priced Taiwanese mushrooms.
If you listen to Thakor’s video, you’ll realise he was obviously telling a tall tale and his audience was chuckling along with him. There were no gasps of shock at his Deep-Throat revelations of the Prime Minister’s alleged dietary habits. Thakor is trying to be a funny guy or, in this case, a fungi.
He is playing to the gallery, poking fun at the Prime Minister. And in that folksy demeanour, the pauses for dramatic effect, the exaggerated use of “saab”, the self-deprecating talk about “garibon ka khana”, the mocking back and forth — his style sounds a shade like that other politician on the campaign trail.
A politician who is also at his best when he is being sarcastic, a man who can drolly milk a phrase for maximum punch, who loves to portray himself as the poor man from a humble background, a humble chaiwalla taking on the arrogant shehzadas, a man who knows how to skewer his opponents with barbed humour, and one who understands how to work a crowd, and is not averse to an exaggeration or two for dramatic effect. In short, Narendra Modi.
In campaign oratory, Modi is unsurpassed. His drawling “Ma-dam Sonia-ji”, dripping with sarcasm, never fails to get the crowd roaring. He does not need to make up stupid stories about mythical mushrooms. It would have to be a very gullible crowd to take that story seriously, but Alpesh Thakor is not really commenting on Modi’s diet. He is trying to puncture the Prime Minister’s larger-than-life aura or at least put a little fungus on it.
The point isn’t the mushrooms. The sting in the jibe Thakor is making is that Modi might have had humble origins, but he’s a big man now. He likes his Mont Blanc pens, his Movado watch, his Bvlgari glasses and that monogrammed suit. Thakor is slyly saying Mr Made-in-India has expensive foreign tastes. This is not a new attack in Indian politics. Just once it was done with more class.
In an op-ed lamenting the coarseness of current political debate, Varun Gandhi tells the story of how Ram Manohar Lohia attacked Jawaharlal Nehru claiming that Rs 25,000 a day was spent on his security while the poor in India lived on 3 annas a day. Nehru bristled at that and he and Lohia went through several rounds of debate thrusting Planning Commission statistics at each other. “And yet, that debate was civil, marked by only the towering tones of soaring rhetoric and grim statistics, with not a disruption or bout of aggression shown,” writes Gandhi.
But we now live in coarser times. Our epithets of choice are “neech“, “chaiwalla“, “50 crore girlfriend”, “buddhu“, “prostitute”, “Italian bitch”, “rancid pickle”, “psychopath”, “Jersey cow”, “Danga babu”, “haramzadon”. These are what make news. These keep the crowds entertained. These keep the TRPs high. A Modi supporter in Gujarat bristles at the “neech” slur but when asked about the language Modi has used against Sonia Gandhi or Manmohan Singh, he says, “Modi is not the one to brook insults. He hits back, and he should.”
Alpesh Thakor might have been crass and crude and prone to exaggeration. But politicians in India find there’s little to gain by trying to elevate the discourse. Instead they are happier to bring it down as low as they can. Is it surprising that this race to the bottom has finally unearthed some mushrooms? Expensive mushrooms, but a cheap shot nonetheless.
Sandip Roy is a novelist based in Kolkata.