New Delhi: From trolling the dead to name-calling, from taking jibes at people’s marital lives to commenting on women’s underpants, from calling refugees “termites” to threatening minorities — as far as election campaigns go, the ongoing Lok Sabha polls will be long-remembered for its vicious, personal attacks and brazenly sexist and communal remarks.
Political leaders across the spectrum have resorted to making controversial, loose and often nasty statements to grab voters’ attention, bringing the quality of campaign and conversation a few notches down each time.
With the last leg of the seven-phase Lok Sabha polls due this Sunday, the campaign seems to be getting even more vitriolic. ThePrint looks at some of the worst moments from this campaign season, which began over two months ago, when the Election Commission announced poll dates 10 March.
Lowering the bar
From the prime minister to chief ministers and former chief ministers, seasoned politicians as well as young blood — the bug of lowering the bar for public discourse seems to have spared none.
In some cases, the Election Commission of India stepped in to impose penalties, while refraining in others. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for instance, has been given a clean chit in all complaints made against him.
Just over a week ago, seeking to take a potshot at Congress president Rahul Gandhi, the PM said of his father and former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi: “Your father was termed ‘Mr Clean’ by his courtiers, but his life ended as ‘Bhrashtachari number 1′.” Modi was speaking at a rally in Uttar Pradesh’s Pratapgarh on 4 May.
Never mind that the former PM was assassinated in 1991 and is irrelevant to the current election.
Modi has also repeatedly, and aggressively, used the armed forces to ask for votes — political parties and leaders are not supposed to invoke the armed forces at campaign rallies, but he received a clean chit from the EC in the matter when the opposition filed a complaint with the poll watchdog.
Or take Modi’s comments about former Uttar Pradesh chief minister and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati as he recalled her harrowing experience during the infamous 1995 ‘guest house’ incident, where she was almost assaulted by Samajwadi Party workers, just to score a few political points.
The two parties, once arch rivals, are contesting the Lok Sabha election as allies. Although the Congress is not a part of this alliance, Modi’s barb was meant to criticise the coalition in light of allegations that police in Rajasthan, where Congress-BSP are in office, didn’t take immediate action in a recent rape case.
“When the (Lucknow) guest house incident happened, the entire country was pained. What is the reason that you are not feeling pained now?” he said at rallies in Uttar Pradesh Sunday.
“If you are so honest about the dignity of the daughters, then you should immediately write a letter to the Rajasthan Governor and withdraw your support from the Congress government,” he added.
Not to be left behind, Mayawati launched a deeply personal and scathing attack on the PM.
During a press conference in Lucknow Monday, she commented on his marital life, asking how a man who had abandoned his “innocent wife” could be expected to speak for women. She also claimed married women in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were scared of letting their husbands meet Modi, as they feared he might separate them like he abandoned his wife.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has also taken on Modi, who gave her the moniker “speedbreaker didi”.
“When Narendra Modi came to Bengal and accused my party of being tolabaaj (extortionist), I wanted to give him a tight slap of democracy,” she said at a rally on 7 May.
On Sunday, she sought to clarify her remarks but ended up targeting him further.
“I did not say that I will slap you literally. I said I will give you a slap of democracy. Why would I slap you?” she said at a rally on 11 May. “If I slap you, I’ll break my hand. You have a chest of 56 inches. How can I slap you? I don’t want to slap or touch you,” she added.
Last month, the Trinamool Congress chief had said the PM was a “liar” and had compared him to Ravan, again taking a shot at his “56-inch chest” remark, which went viral after Modi used it during his 2014 campaign.
Both West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh — with 42 and 80 Lok Sabha seats, respectively — are witnessing hotly-contested poll battles.
Never to be left behind, Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar, who has a history of making personal comments against the PM, has done it yet again.
Terming some of Modi’s claims “stunningly illiterate”, Aiyar wrote in Rising Kashmir on 13 May that the PM’s “acquaintance with higher education has gone no further than lying about degrees from Delhi and Gujarat universities that he never got and who can obviously not tell a scientific proposition from a dhokla”.
Also read: Modi-Shah’s poison has met its match in Mamata Banerjee’s poison
The loose comments
Apart from personal offensives, this campaign has also been replete with loose comments.
Pragya Singh Thakur, an accused in the 2008 Malegaon blasts case, is the BJP’s candidate from Bhopal against Congress leader Digvijaya Singh, a decision that led to much outrage. Soon after her nomination, she landed herself in a controversy when she claimed former Mumbai Anti-Terrorism Squad chief Hemant Karkare died in the 26/11 terror attacks because she had “cursed” him.
“Hemant Karkare falsely implicated me and treated me very badly. I told him your entire dynasty will be wiped out. He died of his karma,” Pragya Thakur said at a rally on 19 April.
The comment was one of the reasons she was barred from campaigning for three days earlier this month.
In early April, BJP president Amit Shah, known for his provocative speeches, caused a furore with his remarks on Wayanad in Kerala — the second constituency, besides Amethi, from where Congress president Rahul Gandhi is contesting.
“When a procession is taken out there, it is difficult to make out whether it is India or Pakistan,” Shah said at a rally in Nagpur, leading Kerala’s ruling Left Democratic Front to lodge a complaint against him with the EC.
Gandhi, meanwhile, triggered a controversy of his own when he referred to Shah as a “murder accused” at a rally in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, later that month.
“Murder accused BJP President Amit Shah. Wow, what flair! Have you heard Jay Shah’s name? He is a magician, he made Rs 50,000 into Rs 80 crore in 3 months,” Gandhi said on 23 April.
Gandhi also coined and amplified the “chowkidar chor hai” slogan against Modi, referring to him as a “thief”, in light of the Congress’ allegations of irregularities in the Rafale deal.
Meanwhile, his cousin Varun Gandhi, a BJP leader, got into trouble with an arrogant and loose statement against the BSP opponent contesting against his mother, union minister Maneka Gandhi, from Sultanpur — the seat Varun won in 2014.
“There is no one on Earth who can harm you. People should be afraid of their sins and the crimes they commit, not some Monu or Tonu. I am standing here. I am Sanjay Gandhi’s son, I get such people to untie my shoelaces,” he said early in April.
On Monday, Trinamool Congress leader Derek O’Brien called Shah “puke-worthy” as he lashed out at the BJP chief for claiming that the Mamata Banerjee government had converted “Sonar Bangla (Golden Bengal)” into “kangal Bangla (pauper Bengal)”.
That puke- worthy Shah had the audacity to use the term কাঙাল বাংলা ‘Kangal Bangla’ today at a rally. The people of Bengal will give him and Modi a fitting reply in Phase 7. That #LowLife insults Bengal
— Derek O'Brien | ডেরেক ও'ব্রায়েন (@derekobrienmp) May 13, 2019
Perhaps the most disturbing element of this campaign has been the generous dose of sexism that has been weaved in. Although this is hardly the first time Indian politics has been witness to derogatory statements against women, this campaign stands out for the sheer ease with which they have been used.
Last month, Azam Khan of the SP received flak from several quarters, and a 72-hour EC ban on campaigning, with his distasteful remark against his BJP rival from Rampur, Jaya Prada.
“People of Rampur, people of Uttar Pradesh and people of India, it took you 17 years to understand her reality. But, I could recognise it in 17 days that she wears a khaki underpants,” he said during a rally in Rampur on 14 April.
Khan’s son, Abdullah, decided to follow suit, referring to the former MP and yesteryear actor as ‘Anarkali’.
“Both Ali and Bajrang Bali are ours, but we do not want Anarkali,” he said at a public meeting a few days later, attempting to prove his party stood for both Hindus and Muslims even as he derided women.
Senior Congress leader Raj Babbar threw his hat into the ring as well with his crude remarks against Mamata Banerjee.
“Mamata Banerjee knows the size of Modi’s kurta. We always used to discuss whether his chest size is 56 inches or not. But looks like she knows the right size and has now started gifting kurtas to him,” Babbar said at a press conference in Kolkata April-end, referring to PM Modi’s claims during an interview that Banerjee gifted him kurtas every year.
BJP leader and union minister Mahesh Sharma, the MP for Gautam Buddha Nagar, coined a sexist term for Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who made her political debut earlier this year as the Congress general secretary in-charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh.
“Pappu says he will become PM. Now Pappu’s Pappi has also come. If you want something better than them, then our lion today is Modi,” he said a week after election dates were announced.
People’s Republican Party Jaydeep Kawade, a Congress ally in Maharashtra, found an easy target in union minister Smriti Irani, who is contesting against Rahul Gandhi in Amethi.
“Smriti Irani sits beside Gadkari and talks about changing the Constitution. Let me tell you a thing about Smriti Irani. She wears a big bindi on her forehead and someone told me that when a woman changes her husbands frequently, the size of her bindi keeps growing,” he said in early April.
Meanwhile, a BJP MLA from Uttar Pradesh, Surendra Singh, seems to have emerged as a repeat offender.
In mid-March, he trained his guns on Mayawati.
“Mayawati ji herself gets facial done every day, who is she to call our leader shaukeen (colourful). Her hair is white, yet she gets them coloured because even today she wants to prove she is young. She is 60 yet all her hair is dark,” he said on 19 March.
Last month, he made inappropriate remarks about former Congress president Sonia Gandhi as well as dancer Sapna Chaudhary, amid rumours that the latter was joining the Congress.
“Rahul ji‘s mother also belonged to the same profession [as Sapna Chaudhary] when she was in Italy. You [Rahul] should also accept Sapna like your father had accepted Sonia ji,” he said in early April.
Also read: Politicians like Rahul and Modi seem adept at spotting sexism in everyone but themselves
The communal remarks
Campaign speeches this election have also been generously sprinkled with incendiary communal statements.
BJP president Amit Shah took his party’s Citizenship (Amendment) Bill push and the ongoing process of updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam a step further by openly communalising the issue of illegal immigrants.
“We will ensure implementation of NRC in the entire country. We will remove every single infiltrator from the country, except Buddha, Hindus and Sikhs [sic],” he said. This was even tweeted by the party’s official Twitter handle on 11 April.
The same day, at a rally in West Bengal, he referred to illegal immigrants as “termites”, saying the BJP would throw them out if voted to office.
Some politicians, including Maneka Gandhi, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, Mayawati and Azam Khan, have been penalised by the EC for making provocative and communal statements, with a temporary ban on their campaigning.
For Maneka, the union minister for Women and Child Development, the ban came after she openly threatened Muslims.
“I am winning. But if my victory is without support from Muslims, I won’t feel that good. My heart will become sour. Then, when a Muslim comes to me for work, I will think, let it be, how does it matter?” she said in Sultanpur early in April.
In Deoband, Mayawati appealed to Muslims to vote for the SP-BSP alliance, while Adityanath made his infamous “Ali versus Bajrang Bali” comments in Meerut.
Also read: Bengal’s communal polarisation is a ‘strategy that helps’ both Mamata and Modi