As someone who 30 years ago stood as the Janata Dal candidate against Rajiv Gandhi in Amethi, I may be allowed to comment on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s now infamous remark about the earlier PM.
Speaking at an election rally in Uttar Pradesh’s Pratapgarh constituency, which adjoins Amethi, and directly addressing Rahul Gandhi, the Congress candidate from that seat, Modi said on May 4: “Your father was termed ‘Mr Clean’ by his courtiers, but his life ended as ‘Bhrashtachari No 1.”’
All know that the life of Rahul’s father, Rajiv Gandhi, India’s prime minister from 1984 to 1989, ended in 1991 from a terrorist bomb blasted in his face.
For three years or so of his premiership, Rajiv Gandhi was indeed termed “Mr Clean” by what was then an independent media, not by persons close to him. It is also true that unsuccessful attempts were made to link Rajiv Gandhi to kickbacks from Sweden’s Bofors company after India’s defence ministry ordered that company’s field-guns in 1987.
I was one of several Indians troubled by the Bofors scandal. But when, in 1989, I stood as a Janata Dal candidate against Rajiv Gandhi in Amethi, Bofors did not figure in a large way in my campaign. Media independence was my main plank, and also the strengthening of democratic institutions. To speak in my favour, V P Singh (who would become prime minister at the end of 1989) and Mulayam Singh Yadav came to Amethi. Neither mentioned Bofors.
After my defeat at Rajiv’s hands, the UP Vidhan Sabha elected me to the Rajya Sabha. In Parliament, where the Congress, now in Opposition, was led by Rajiv, I had several warm if brief interactions with him before his assassination in the summer of 1991.
If there were some in India in 1991 who thought of Rajiv as India’s most corrupt person, I did not meet them. No MP, whether in government or Opposition, seemed to think of Rajiv as personally corrupt. All were shaken by the brutal assassination of a fine human being and grieved over it.
Even if someone then believed that Rajiv had tolerated corruption, would they say to his son 28 years later that “your father ended his life as India’s most corrupt man”?
His daughter, Priyanka Gandhi, reacted to Modi’s remark by saying: “The prime minister, who is seeking votes in the name of martyrs, yesterday disrespected the martyrdom of a noble man. People in Amethi will give a befitting reply.”
Everyone was horrified by the unbelievable remark and many have expressed themselves, but none as concisely and bitingly as Rahul, who replied to the slur thrown directly at him: “Modi ji, the battle is over. Your Karma awaits you. Projecting your inner beliefs about yourself onto my father won’t protect you. All my love and a huge hug. Rahul.”
Whatever the election results be on May 23, history will record this tweet as a classic retort. In his Pratapgarh speech, Modi had also said, referring to Rahul Gandhi’s persistent allegations over Rafale, “By hurling abuses, you cannot turn 50 long years of Modi’s tapasya into dust.”
If his other sentence was shocking, this one calls for reflection. For starters, Modi comfortably speaks of himself in the third person. He observes, acknowledges and even seems to admire his own tapasya of “50 long years”.
Though self-praise is seldom an attractive quality, we need not question the claim of 50 strenuous years of dedicated effort. However, we can wonder about the goal behind the dedication, and we can ask whether or not persons from a particular category are to be excluded from the fruits of that effort.
Sadly, dedication may at times be accompanied by ill-will. Equally, frankness can be joined by goodwill. When Rahul added the word “love” to his stinging retort, it sounded genuine.
The writer is research professor at Centre for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. The article appeared in print under the headline: ‘Amethi Lows’