Oh dear, Narendra Modi is back to his bad old ways. After months of carefully constructed makeover rhetoric, he has regressed to favourite tropes that once defined his previous ruder, cruder avatar. Slurs of anti-nationalism are back in vogue, as are dog whistles about a certain Indian leader's not-so Indian heritage.
Bye, bye Modi Future. Hello again, Modi Past.
And this barely a week after the leading liberal intellectual Ashutosh Varshney applauded Modi for decisively breaking from his Hindutva past -- at least in his speeches.
"Modi appears to have concluded that ideological purity cannot bring him to power. Vajpayee-like ideological moderation and political pragmatism are necessary, at least for now," wrote Varshney.
The Hindutva sloganeering may be absent, but Modi has many other "immoderate" weapons in his tried-and-tested arsenal, and he clearly intends to use them. First came the crass attack on "AK-49 (aka Arvind Kejriwal) who has just given birth to a new party" and -- in Modi's words -- is one of the three AKs that "have emerged as a unique strength for Pakistan."
The slur was nonsensical, tasteless and unwarranted, as TOI columnist Santosh Desai noted: "To label Kejriwal a Pakistani agent is ridiculous enough and to do so on the basis of Prashant Bhushan's statement (which Kejriwal has publicly dissociated himself with more than once) and a map put up on the party website reeks of desperation that Modi has no business feeling."
“He (Modi) should talk on issues and not get into bad mouthing. Such words do not suit a man who is a prime ministerial candidate," responded an uncharacteristically restrained Kejriwal, and he was exactly right.
But then again such a blithe attack on a rival's patriotism is, of course, reminiscent of the "foreign hand" tactic of Indira Gandhi, one of our most beloved Prime Ministers. As none other than Atal Behari Vajpayee once said of her, "She was unable to take criticism, saw in every Opposition move a foreign hand."
To compound the irony, Modi's other recent ''anti-national' attack was aimed at the other Mrs Gandhi. This time around, Modi opted for the sly dog whistle rather than open slander by choosing to focus on the infamous Italian marines accused of killing Indian fishermen off the coast of Kerala.
"I want to ask: who or what power sent them back to Italy and asking them not to be brought back. Should they (marines) not be in jail in India?" he thundered, "The nation now wants to know the address of the jail where the marines have been lodged. Just because they are from Italy, they cannot be subjected to different treatment".
And then came the final twist of the knife: "Will the 100 crore Indians need to learn patriotism from Sonia Gandhi?" As in Sonia Maino Gandhi, a spurious Indian whose heart and loyalty still belong to her native country.
Yes, this is indeed shaping up to be an exceptionally ugly election, and rhetorical excess is as much a problem for Kejriwal and Congress attack dogs like Salman Khurshid. But a prime ministerial candidate with a history of ugly electoral rhetoric -- be it his Ahmed 'Mian' Patel or "Hum paanch, humare pachees" -- can ill-afford to remind voters of his past. Not in 2014 when flexibility is a key quality required of the leader of our nation, as Desai writes: "This is no longer an optional virtue; it is increasingly a basic necessity, given the diversity of interests that need to be juggled at the national level." Ranting about Pakistani agents and Sonia's Italian descent may play well among his fans, but is unlikely to move the needle with the many other voters.
For better or worse -- but mostly the former -- this is no longer the India that Indira made. Regressing to either his or the nation's past is a luxury that Modi can ill-afford.
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Updated Date: Apr 01, 2014 14:59:06 IST