Who would have thought that something Mani Shankar Aiyar said would become an issue, and perhaps 'the' issue, of a Gujarat election? I certainly did not, and nor do I think it is an issue of the size, in Gujarat, that people outside the state think it is.
When I heard about the scandalous remark, I checked my Gujarati dictionary, which translates 'neech' as 'dusht'. The English translations are 'wicked', 'vile' and 'mean'. Should Aiyar have used the word? No. A political debate and all debates must be civil. But does it have a meaning that links it to caste? No.
The second thing is the issue of Modi's caste. The prime minister belongs to a very successful community called Ghanchi. These are people who run kirana stores and also press oil and sell grain (and tea) from shops. The word Modi itself means an individual who owns and runs the neighbourhood kirana store, and it has the same meaning as the name Gandhi.
The Ghanchi community is not seen as a backward caste by Gujaratis and it became a backward class or OBC only in 1999 under Atal Behari Vajpayee. And so, for many Gujaratis, the word 'neech' will not be an automatic link to caste abuse for the prime minister.
These are the reasons that I thought that the issue was overblown and would not be particularly effective as a campaign weapon. Time will tell, though, of course, we will have no way of knowing specifically which issue led to a BJP win (and I expect BJP to win, as I wrote in my previous column) and which were only hot air from the media.
The one story which I thought would be damaging when I heard about it was the matter of the Somnath register. Subsequent reporting has shown that the story was not what it was made out to be, but certainly, it would have interested many Gujaratis and they would have been concerned that Gandhi had chosen to be registered as a non-Hindu (which he hadn’t). But that story is now history and the media interest has moved on.
Then there was the one about Aiyar comparing Rahul Gandhi’s ascension as Congress president to that of Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb. He was apparently not quoted fully on the matter by many who subsequently commented on it, including me. But he should have known that anything that brought in Gandhi and Aurangzeb would have been used by Modi, as it was. How effective was this? Again, I do not think people decide whom to vote for on something like this but it gave BJP the space to talk about Congress rather than performance in a state it has ruled for two decades.
Before that BJP had leaked a report about a hospital in which Ahmed Patel was a trustee, had an employee or a former employee, who had been in a terrorism case. This was a bogus story in the sense that there was no link between Patel and the man accused. It was pushed because BJP usually profits from showing Congress as being soft on terrorism, though history and data show otherwise.
Then there was the story only a few days ago about Kapil Sibal, the Congressman who is also a lawyer, asking the Supreme Court not to deliver its verdict on the Babri Masjid case till the 2019 General Election to Lok Sabha. Modi had another opportunity to make the news cycles with ready-made material provided to him. The Ayodhya matter, which made BJP a national party and which is a politically dead issue, was again made deliberately prominent.
In the latest story to make the headlines, the prime minister has levelled the allegation that Aiyar, who has confessed that he has zero ability to keep his mouth shut, told the Pakistanis to take out a 'supari' on Modi. This is, of course, not true. It is either the case that the prime minister really believes it, which is worrying, or, is making something up because it helps him in an election, which is also worrying.
As can be seen, all or most of the major issues that have made the news cycle have been things that BJP has introduced against Congress with support from the media. This is a negative campaign, of slurs and fears. The striking thing is that BJP has no desire to fight a positive campaign as it did in 2014, on the issue of governance and achhe din.
This is unfortunate, but it is also the way politics is done in the subcontinent. Where BJP can use these tactics, it will. It is up to Congress to think up its own issues that media finds attractive enough to push. And it is definitely up to Congress to not make deliberate mistakes of the sort it has in this election.
Updated Date: Dec 11, 2017 09:22 AM