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Criticism of Narendra Modi for his remarks against Rajiv Gandhi misses the point; Congress’ overreaction may backfire

Rajiv Gandhi has arrived as an issue in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The former prime minister, who was assassinated in 1991 in a suicide bomb attack, has been called “corrupt no. 1” by Narendra Modi during a campaign rally in Uttar Pradesh on Saturday. This has created an unprecedented furore among the Opposition, not to speak of those critical of Modi.

What exactly did the prime minister say? Addressing a rally in Pratapgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Modi trained his guns on Rahul Gandhi’s father, Rajiv. “Your father was termed ‘Mr Clean’ by his courtiers, but his life ended as ‘bhrashtachari no. 1’ (corrupt no.1),” he said. Modi was, of course, not speaking without context. His comments came against the backdrop of the Congress’ incessant attacks against him on alleged corruption in the Rafale fighter jet deal, and Rahul’s campaign slogan "chowkidar chor hai" (the watchman himself is the thief) where "chowkidar" is a reference to Modi.

While Rahul’s "thief" slur against him is not new, the immediate provocation for Modi seems to be an interview given by Rahul Gandhi to a magazine where he boasts about “ripping apart” Modi’s “incorruptible” image and tearing it into shreds.

 Criticism of Narendra Modi for his remarks against Rajiv Gandhi misses the point; Congress’ overreaction may backfire

File image of Narendra Modi. PTI

While attacking Rahul’s father, Rajiv, Modi said that the interview makes it clear that the Gandhi scion’s only motive was to sully his image by hook or by crook.

“By hurling abuses, you cannot turn the 50 long years of Modi’s tapasya (struggle) into dust,” the prime minister said at the rally. “By tarnishing my image and by making me look small, these people want to form an unstable and a weak government in the country… The naamdar must clearly listen that this Modi was not born with a golden spoon, nor was he born in any royal family.”

Be that as it may, Modi’s move to drag the name of a departed leader into poll politics has triggered a massive row, and it is being said that his comments against Rajiv may trigger a backlash even from those who are sympathetic to the BJP. All Opposition leaders have slammed the prime minister and a furious Congress has approached the Election Commission, asking it to act against Modi for his remarks. Former Union finance minister P Chidambaram has said that Modi’s comments reek of “desperation”. He pointed out that no religion allows anyone to speak ill of the dead (De mortuis nihil nisi bonum: Of the dead, speak nothing but the good).

Two issues are getting conflated here. One, did Modi do the right thing during a campaign rally to speak derogatorily of a former prime minister who is no more? Two, was he wrong in calling Rajiv Gandhi — whose tenure as prime minister ended in ignominy over the infamous Bofors scandal — as "corrupt"?

Speaking ill of the dead is improper. Modi’s remarks were uncalled for and in poor taste. It drags down the already abysmal political discourse by a few notches still. Modi has been at the receiving end of incessant crass jibes from the Opposition, which includes Rahul Gandhi in a prominent role. Still, it does not justify his remarks. As the prime minister, Modi is expected to maintain a decorum and set precedent.

This argument, however, must be subjected to one caveat. Campaign rallies are no Parliament speeches, or prime ministerial addresses delivered from the ramparts of the Red Fort. In a bitterly-fought election that has no space for the lily-livered, no quarters are extended, and none are asked for.

What seems to have escaped the notice of many is that Modi, an orator par excellence, might be making a distinction between his two roles — that of a prime minister and his party’s karyakarta — BJP’s chief vote-getter and star campaigner.

Modi has earlier acknowledged the contributions of prime ministers before him. His Parliament speeches or Red Fort addresses are almost always sober and statesmanlike. On these occasions, he refrains from exaggerated hand movements, using a mocking tone or modulating his voice. Some of his best speeches have been delivered on the floor of the House where, even in criticism of his opponents, Modi never pushes the boundaries of decorum. Exceptions do exist, but these are rare.

Whereas in campaign rallies, while speaking from the podium and addressing lakhs during the heat and dust of elections, Modi is not a prime minister but a street fighter and a mass leader who may mock, ridicule and tear apart his political opponents using every trick in the book. His task here is to make his own case and shatter those of his rivals.

As the party’s star campaigner, Modi coins terms and monikers (for instance, naamdar for members of Gandhi family) so that the crowd may lap it up. While campaigner Modi attacks, teases and scorns at opponents, the prime minister of India rarely lets his speeches breach decorum of the office.

File image of Rajiv Gandhi. AFP

File image of Rajiv Gandhi. AFP

The trouble is, while Modi may be creating such a distinction between two roles, this may not be apparent to most. The switching of hats between campaigner and prime minister appears unusual to many, and Modi has naturally been at the receiving end of a verbal backlash. Notwithstanding the provocation, Modi could have and should have avoided falling into the trap that gives his detractors a handle.

The second issue, however, is more complicated. The Delhi High Court had indeed exonerated Rajiv Gandhi of collusion in the scam in 2011 due to lack of evidence against him, but the Bofors scandal continues to remain as a millstone around the Congress’ neck. The controversy has refused to die down despite the court’s acquittal, and till date, the Bofors scandal finds  the Congress on the defensive.

What has also kept the embers burning are periodic leaks, reports and declassification of secret files that cast new light on the scandal and cast Rajiv Gandhi, the exonerated leader, in unfavorable light.

In 2013, India Today had reported about a series of Kissinger Cables that had been released by whistleblower website WikiLeaks. These secret cables suggest that “Rajiv Gandhi may have been an arms middleman way before he became the prime minister of the country.”

Four years later, in 2017, a declassified report by US secret service Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) indicated that Sweden had retracted an investigation into the Bofors scandal to avoid embarrassing then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in a "scheme" with India that kept payments made to middlemen secret. According to Economic Times, that quoted the declassified CIA document, “Stockholm wanted to save Gandhi the troubles caused him (sic) by the Swedish leak and Nobel industries (the mother company) wanted to avoid a bribery indictment. The two sides cooperated therefore, on a scheme, to keep details of the payments secret. Stockholm eventually called off the entire bribery investigation.”

Journalist Chitra Subramaniam, who cracked the Bofors scandal over three decades ago, wrote in The News Minute of a “quid pro quo” between Rajiv Gandhi and his Swedish counterpart Olof Palme. According to the report, both the leaders “discussed the details of a financial quid-pro-quo before the Bofors gun deal was signed in March 1986. Bofors would pay money to a foundation in Sweden to make it easier for payments to be made to Indians and others.” Written in 2017, the article mentions that “this is the first time that any official confirmation has been made about a quid-pro-quo which has been a matter of conjecture but never established.”

Taking these into context, indignant outrage over Rajiv Gandhi’s name being “sullied” over the Bofors scandal appears a bit rich. Congress’s overreaction on this issue, however, may backfire. The political discourse is now no longer a one-way street.

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Updated Date: May 06, 2019 21:30:25 IST