Mani Shankar Aiyar was a diplomat and, from all accounts, a rather good diplomat. But that was in the past. Since abandoning his old profession and reinventing himself as a Congress politician, he has shed all inhibitions. He now says whatever comes to his mind and says it with an acid tongue. That might elicit a few laughs in circles dominated by Stephanians of a particular vintage, but doesn’t always go down well in a political world where there, fortunately, exists an undefined code of conduct.
In the past, Aiyar has scored many self-goals. The most memorable of these was his chaiwala taunt of Narendra Modi that many feel added significantly to the Congress party’s discomfort in the 2014 general election. It made his party appear in the most negative of colours — as a group dominated by the well-heeled, who nurtured a fierce sense of entitlement. In an India, where aspirations often define political stands, this comment was a monumental boo-boo. Now, he has done it again, by calling the Prime Minister neech, a term that carries more devastating connotations than its literal English translation would suggest.
In a bid to curtail any potential damage to the party in Gujarat, Aiyar has been suspended from the party. I, for one, don’t think this is a permanent measure. It is more than likely that after December 18, the Doon School gadfly will be quietly reinstated and told to lie low for some time.
In any case, the quantum of damage Aiyar may have inflicted on the Congress is unknown. Predictably, all the BJP heavyweights have come down hard on him and — quite rightly in my view — interpreted his remark as evidence of the Congress’s social disdain. Actually, the offence is quite grave and by no means confined to just one errant public-school boy. Ever since Modi defied all odds and won a majority in
May 2014, a very large section of those opposed to him have shed all restraint in attacking him.
Even a casual perusal of the social media will suffice to demonstrate that the nominal respect that should be accorded to an elected Prime Minister of India has not been shown. In the case of Modi, all sense of restraint has been abandoned, particularly by people who combine their education with social condescension. By way of defence, these people will argue that Rahul Gandhi too has not been shown any respect and often portrayed as either a delinquent or an imbecile. The BJP partisans on the social media are the guiltiest.
The problem takes on a curious turn when it comes to political analysis. I firmly believe that there is no such thing as pure objectivity and that every dispassionate analyst is guilty of letting personal bias get in the way of fair balance. However, in the case of Modi, there is an inclination to be indiscriminate in attacking him for every single aspect of his administration and not give him any credit.
I confronted this during an interview for the BBC programme ‘Hardtalk’. The interviewer, who must have depended almost entirely on research notes prepared by other journalists, concentrated only on the negatives. So much so that his questions were centred on the assumption that Modi’s government was only for the rich, that demonetisation was the instrument of converting black money into white, that corruption was still at dizzying levels, that every Muslim in India was endangered and that Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie reflected feelings within the BJP.
Of course, it could be argued that it is the job of journalists in such a programme to merely ask ‘hard’ questions. But this is a fig leaf. The undeniable reality is that there is no semblance of attempted objectivity when it comes to Modi. To his critics he is a target. Aiyar represented such a point of view.
The question that will be interesting to answer in Gujarat is, does this stark and polarised perception of the Prime Minister prevail in his home state? In other words, is every local problem and shortcoming laid at the door of the PM? Alternatively, are all local hiccups going to be ignored for the sake of upholding a local son made good in national politics? Hopefully we will get a clearer answer on December 18. So far, the answers have been mixed.
In Bihar, the BJP posited Modi against a local leader and failed. In Uttar Pradesh the local candidate was rebuffed, and the PM endorsed. In Gujarat, the Congress doesn’t quite have a local face, although there are suggestions that Ahmed Patel is the Congress’ hidden chief ministerial candidate. At the same time, the local BJP confronts anti-incumbency — although its intensity is a matter of conjecture.
If Modi is able to iron out these local creases, it would suggest that his larger than life reputation is real and that his popularity is unrivalled.
I feel that opinion polls notwithstanding, the real verdict will be known on December 18. That will be the date when we can really judge whether Aiyar was being visceral out of sheer frustration or whether he was merely reflecting the enthusiasm of a party that thinks it has finally got the better of Modi. A week’s wait is excruciating but then, after the verdict, we can have a period of sobriety.
The author is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a Presidential Nominee to the Rajya Sabha.