No Prime Minister Has Stooped So Low in His Statements as Modi Has

When a man has his back to the wall, he sometimes loses control over his tongue.

Outraged by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘raincoat’ remark on Manmohan Singh, Congress MPs staged a walkout from the Rajya Sabha last week. Their protest may have been a bit of an overreaction but the truth is that the jibe was in extremely poor taste.

What Modi did, in essence, was to accuse the former prime minister – without providing any proof – of personal involvement in corruption.

To elaborate on the remark, it is clear that one goes to a “bathroom” to take a “bath” voluntarily and selects the kind of “water” to use. During his tenure, Manmohan Singh faced a lot of flak over allegations of corruption against his government but he ignored the attacks perhaps because he was carried away by the euphoria of power. But to say that he chose the “water” – ­rather, the mud – of corruption and that he artfully covered himself in a “raincoat” to stay clean from the taint is an accusation no one has made yet. Manmohan Singh has thus far maintained a clean personal image and his party has never failed to use it. Of course,  corrupt leaders within Congress can well be accused of using Manmohan Singh as a raincoat to cover their crimes but in charging Singh with corruption Modi seems to have taken matters too far.

What drove Modi to make such an allegation? For one, he was desperate to strike back. In the last parliamentary session, Singh had spoken like the economist he is and delivered a rare, brief and relatively strong speech condemning demonetisation – a speech in which he used terms like “organised loot” and “plunder”. Singh’s vocabulary was not abusive or frivolous but it stung Modi – who is aspiring to be the Messiah of neo-liberal economics – where it mattered most.

The ‘raincoat’ remark is probably also the product of the tough political fight Modi has on his hands. In the ongoing assembly elections, his demonetisation policy has become a decisive factor and not in the way that he had imagined it would be. After the humiliating defeats of Delhi and Bihar, these polls have become a prestige issue for Modi. When a man has his back to the wall, he sometimes loses control over his tongue.

With more than half his term over, the fact is that Modi’s government has failed on key fronts. His ambitious policies have turned out to be so vague that they do not find a place in the budget and have been pushed to the margins. Promises of employment, recovery of black money, ‘Make in India’, ‘Smart City’, bullet train, river linking are all projects that exist only on paper. There are chances that Modi’s ‘Namami Gange’ bluff may even compromise his position in Varanasi, his own constituency.

Adding to this is the continuing havoc wreaked by ‘notebandi’. No matter how confident Modi pretends to be, and how various news channels use paid surveys to show demonetisation as a revolutionary step, I have found in my visits to Uttar Pradesh and Punjab that the move has made the masses furious. If the electorate feels hurt, humiliated or robbed in any way, it will vote to take revenge and even caste equations and communal polarisation will not deter it.

When Modi is in campaign mode, his rhetoric is aggressive and full of satire. The fact that he spoke about Manmohan Singh in the same mode tells us his aim was to reach out to voters and not merely to parliament. Is there any politician better acquainted with the ways in which modern visual means of communication can be used or abused? After the parliamentary broadcast, excerpts from his speech were picked up by the BJP’s IT cell and made accessible in all constituencies through social media.

Modi won the 2014 general elections on the issue of corruption during Congress rule and promises of ‘Achche Din’. Defending his disastrous demonetization policy by accusing Manmohan Singh of corruption is nothing but a replay of the same strategy.

As far as Modi’s use of language is concerned, the falling standards of electoral rhetoric are not new in politics. Politicians often resort to bad language at various forums. While Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi are not known for linguistic restraint, Modi has a better hold on language and its dramatic use.

So when he uses phrases like “50 crore ki girlfriend” to refer to Congress MP Shashi Tharoor’s wife, he is quick to add that what is said in election rallies is not meant to be taken seriously. In similar vein, his party president Amit Shah also dismissed electoral promises as merely “jumlas” (rhetoric).

Still, the use of such low level language in  parliament by a man holding the top-most position in the country indicates a deterioration not witnessed before. Never  has a prime minister put on such a shocking display of language. Not even Atal Bihari Vajpayee, whose rhetoric and dramatic gestures Modi and others in the BJP have strived to emulate.

Om Thanvi is a senior journalist and former editor of Jansatta.

This article has been translated from the Hindi original by Naushin Rehman.