Congress suspended senior leader Mani Shankar Aiyar from primary membership of the party on Thursday after he triggered another storm calling Narendra Modi a neech aadmi (vile man), a comment which was being seen fraught with adverse consequences for the party in poll-bound Gujarat.
In a quick damage control exercise, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi immediately deprecated Aiyar's language against the prime minister and asked him to apologise, which the former Union Minister did, claiming his knowledge of Hindi was not good. He also maintained that he never called Modi a "low born".
Congress communications incharge Randeep Surjewala said the action showed the party's "Gandhian leadership" and respect for the political rival. He asked whether prime minister Modi would dare to act similarly.
यही हैं कांग्रेस का गांधीवादी नेतृत्व व विरोधी के प्रति सम्मान की भावना।
कांग्रेस पार्टी ने श्री मनी शंकर अय्यर को कारण बताओ नोटिस जारी कर प्राथमिक सदस्यता से निलम्बित कर दिया है।
क्या मोदी जी कभी यह साहस दिखाएँगे? https://t.co/h6MEgvm6Ca
— Randeep S Surjewala (@rssurjewala) December 7, 2017
The BJP, meanwhile, termed the action an eyewash.
Mani Shankar Aiyer’s ‘Neech’ -attack on Prime Minister- a deliberate casteist statement, a convenient apology, a strategic suspension. People should see through this game — Arun Jaitley (@arunjaitley) December 7, 2017
— TIMES NOW (@TimesNow) December 7, 2017
As Aiyar's remarks that Modi was a neech aadmi (low man) in the context of his criticism of the Congress vis-a-vis BR Ambedkar set off a political firestorm, Modi, the seasoned campaigner, quickly lapped up the comment to launch a scalding attack on the Congress leader and his party, claiming the remark was a casteist slur against him.
The prime minister referred to it in an election meeting in Surat and attacked the Congress leader, saying he called him a neech jaati (low caste). "They can call me neech jaati. Yes, I am from the poor section of society and will spend every moment of my life to work for the poor, Dalits, tribals and backward classes. That is my culture. They can keep their language, we will do our work," Modi told an election rally in Surat.
Modi said Aiyar came from a good family, has a number of university degrees, was a diplomat for a number of years and remained a Minister in the Manmohan Singh government, but was resorting to such insults.
"Shriman (Mr) Mani Shankar Aiyar today said that Modi is of 'neech' (lower) caste and is 'neech' (vile). Is this not an insult to Gujarat? "You called us donkey, you called us gandi nali ka keeda (worm of a dirty drain), you called us maut ka saudagar (merchant of death), you said I am of neech jaati (lower caste man) and neech. But we will live according to our sanskars (values)," Modi said, launching an onslaught against Congress leaders who called him names in the past. "This is a Mughal mentality where if such a person (who comes from a humble background) wears good clothes in a village, they have a problem," he said.
"They called me maut ka saudagar and wanted to jail me. But our value system is strong. We have nothing to say to such elements. Our answer will come through the ballot box. I appeal to all BJP activists not to retort. But answer them on 9 and 14 December (voting days). My people should not lower their standards. We will teach them a lesson. Voting results would mean what low caste means when everyone votes for the BJP. You have lost your mental balance. I am not upset because I work for the people," Modi said.
As the row became an embarrassment for the Congress, Rahul Gandhi took to Twitter to disapprove of Aiyar's language.
BJP and PM routinely use filthy language to attack the Congress party. The Congress has a different culture and heritage. I do not appreciate the tone and language used by Mr Mani Shankar Aiyer to address the PM. Both the Congress and I expect him to apologise for what he said. — Office of RG (@OfficeOfRG) December 7, 2017
Reporters got around to Aiyar at a function in Delhi's WWF Auditorium Hall and asked him about Modi's attack and Gandhi's suggestion to him to apologise. After the rebuke by the Congress leadership, Aiyar, known for making off-the-cuff remarks against political rivals that often embarrassed his party, was soon on national television proffering clarification, insisting it was because of his poor understanding of Hindi language that he used the word, and tendering apology.
"Yes, I used the word neech. Now, I am not a Hindi speaker and I translate from English to Hindi. So I used 'low person', I translated 'low' in my mind. If it happened to mean something else. I apologise. Neech as I understand is a direct translation of 'low'.
"I never meant 'low born'. In English there's a clear distinction between 'low' and 'low born'. It is very possible that in Hindi -- which is not my natural language and which I learned after much effort — I translated 'low' as neech. But if neech also means 'low born' then I apologise that I used a word which can be interpreted in many ways, and in the way Modi ji is interpreting it, I have nothing to do with that.
When repeatedly asked if he was tendering apology for calling Modi 'neech', Aiyar said,"Do I apologise about the word 'low'? No. Do I apologise about the word that is translated which says 'low born'? Absolutely yes."
"I don't think he is low born but his language is very, I'll say in English, is very low language. Why would he use such a low language for the Congress on such an occasion. Whatever I say they want to misinterpret. As far as I am concerned the bulk of my remarks dealt with Modi's very, very nasty remarks about the Congress, particularly with Gandhi's relationship with Ambedkar."
Wading into the controversy, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said Aiyar's neech remark displayed a mindset that only one elite family can be a ruler and the rest are only the neech.
"The Congress Party has challenged the weaker and backward sections of India by calling the Prime Minister as neech . The strength of India's democracy will be displayed when a person of humble background politically defeats the dynasty and its representatives," he said in tweets.
Jaitley later told reporters that it was part of a Congress strategy to belittle the prime minister every day and then say "I will retract".
"If you are unsure of the language or facts, then you are unfit to be in politics," he said.
Meanwhile, this was not the first time that Aiyar's remarks would have put Congress in a spot. Just day's before Thursday's controversy, Aiyar had given Modi another chance attack Congress as he invoked Mughal emperors in trying to justify Rahul Gandhi's unopposed elevation to the post of Congress president — a comment he claims was used out of context.
In trying to defend his party against the 'dynast' tag, Aiyar had said, “When Shah Jahan came in the place of Jahangir did any election happen? And when Aurangzeb came in place of Shah Jahan did any election happen? It was known to everyone that the throne of the king will automatically go to the heir."
Modi was quick to latch on to Aiyar's remarks and had said that the Congress loyalist was proud of his party's 'Aurangzebi Raj (dynastic traditions).
Earlier too, in 2014, when Modi was elected as prime minister, Aiyar had made scathing remarks on him by mocking Modi's ambitions and had said that a place will be identified for the Gujarat chief minister to distribute tea.
He was quoted by PTI as saying, "I promise you in 21st Century Narendra Modi will never become the Prime Minister of the country...But if he wants to distribute tea here, we will find a place for him."
In 1998, Aiyar had called then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee nalayak, a comment for which he later apologised in similar fashion, saying he did not quite understand the import of Hindi words. He said he used the word thinking nalayak was an antonym of layak, but Hamid Ansari later enlightened him on the usage of the pejorative Hindi language word.
On another occassion, Aiyar was mocked after he had addressed Lashkar-e-Taiba founder and Mumbai attack mastermind Hafiz Saeed as 'Saab (sir)' on Pakistani television.
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