For over a month, the Congress campaign in Gujarat revolved around governance or the lack of it at the Centre and in the state. As the campaign wound to a close Thursday for the first phase of polling Saturday, a remark by Mani Shankar Aiyar threatened to upset its carefully crafted narrative, leaving it red-faced and scrambling for damage control.
Hours after Aiyar, an old Gandhi family loyalist, called Prime Minister Narendra Modi a “neech kisam ka aadmi” prompting him to use the caste card to hit out at the Congress, the party suspended him from its primary membership and the A K Antony-headed disciplinary action committee issued him a show-cause notice.
This came shortly after party president-elect Rahul Gandhi rebuked Aiyar, who was once a confidant of his father Rajiv, on Twitter. He not just disapproved of his remark but told him to apologise to the Prime Minister. Rahul cracked the whip after he spoke to AICC general secretary in charge of Gujarat Ashok Gehlot and other senior leaders to assess the damage the remark would cause.
Rahul and the Congress seem to have learnt from experience. His sister Priyanka Vadra had used the “neech” word while attacking Modi in the midst of the 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign. After she had accused the party of playing “neech rajniti” (low level politics), Modi — the then Prime Ministerial candidate of the BJP — had given it a caste spin.
Hitting back at Modi’s attack on her family, Priyanka had then said “Inhone Amethi ki dharti pe mere shaheed pita ka apmaan kiya hai. Inki neech rajniti ka jawaab mere booth ke karyakartaa denge (He has insulted my martyred father on Amethi’s soil. My booth-level workers in Amethi will reply to his low-level politics).”
Modi had then tweeted in reply: “As I belong to a socially backward section, they consider my politics to be neech rajniti. Some people cannot see that it is due to the renunciation, sacrifice and hard work of people of backward castes that the country has reached its current heights.” Addressing a campaign meeting after her statement, he had then said “Is it a crime to be born in a backward caste? Did I insult anyone despite being born in a backward caste? Such a dirty blame has been put on me…. it is a fact that I was born in a backward caste but I can assure this country that my politics is not of low level. I have a dream of a united India, a better India.”
This time, the Congress has been treading cautiously, avoiding any personal attack against the Prime Minister or references to the post-Godhra riots or encounter killings, fearing it could polarise voters and work to its disadvantage. The assessment was that remarks like ‘Maut ka Saudagar’ had backfired as it gave Modi an opportunity to harp on Gujarati pride.
I have nothing to say on a ‘wise’ Congress leader calling me ’Neech’. This is the Congress mindset. They have their language and we have our work. People will answer them through the ballot box. https://t.co/2McoZnaoar pic.twitter.com/icGqAphUzy
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) December 7, 2017
Sources said the party leadership decided early on — and conveyed to spokespersons — that they should avoid personalising the campaign and commenting on issues which can be used to communally polarise the electorate. The Congress even made it public that Rahul had asked the party to discontinue its vikas-has-gone-crazy campaign after the Prime Minister said he was vikas.
One question in the party today was whether the controversy would upset the Congress’s caste calculus after Modi linked the word neech to his caste.The Congress as well as the BJP are banking on OBCs, specifically the Kolis and Thakores. And there is a Dalit and tribal vote bank, too.
Earlier, Aiyar issued a qualified apology after Rahul tweeted that “I do not appreciate the tone and language used by Mr Mani Shankar Aiyar to address the PM. Both the Congress and I expect him to apologise for what he said.” Rahul said the “BJP and PM routinely use filthy language to attack the Congress party. The Congress has a different culture and heritage”.
Not new to such controversies — his remark about offering Modi a space to sell tea at the AICC was quickly picked up by the BJP in 2014 — Aiyar’s remarks came after the Prime Minister, while inaugurating the Dr Ambedkar International Centre in New Delhi, said: “Parties who sought votes in name of B R Ambedkar tried to erase his contribution in nation-building and did little to build the Ambedkar International Centre conceived 23 years ago”. In an apparent reference to Rahul’s recent temple visits and his claim that he was devotee of Shiva, Modi said “it is a different matter that they are thinking more of Baba Bhole (Lord Shiva) than Babasaheb… even that is okay.”
Reacting to this statement, Aiyar told ANI: “One person made the largest contribution in realising the biggest dream of Ambedkar. His name was Jawaharlal Nehru. Now if someone is using such dirty words for this family, that too on the day when such a large building is being inaugurated in Ambedkar’s memory… Mujhko lagta hai ki ye aadmi bahut neech kisam ka aadmi hai. Isme koi sabhyata nahi hai. Aur aise mauke par is prakar ki gandi rajneeti ki kya avashyakta hai. (I think this man is a neech. He is not civilised. And why such dirty politics on an occasion such as this?”)
Aiyar later appeared before reporters and said: “Do I apologise about the word ‘low’? No. Do I apologise about the translation which says low-born? Absolutely yes,” he said. He claimed he did not use the word in the context of caste. “Without understanding the meaning, I had called Vajpayee a nalayak. If there is any other meaning for this word… if its translation in English is low-born, then I am sorry I used that language,” he said.