It’s a given in the heat and dust of elections that candidates lose their cool. In a noisy, fractious democracy where so much is — and should be — deeply contested and churned, a little mud flying is par for the campaign course. And yet, over the past few weeks, there has been on display talk that’s divisive, vicious and hateful. What kind of an echo this finds across the electorate only May 23 may tell. But one thing is clear, the bar has fallen so low that there’s little to shock. Into this wades in Congress president Rahul Gandhi. He keeps reminding the voter that this fight is about the idea of India itself and then descends from this grand perch to the same low that he accuses his rivals of: Denigrating a community, collapsing identities and firing the cheapest of shots. Why do all thieves have Modi in their names, whether it is Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi or Narendra Modi, is the rhetorical question he asked at a rally in Karnataka. He has used this line more than once, perhaps believing that it’s smart and devastating and that it makes his point that there is a kinship between the prime minister and these accused. Financial corruption by businessmen and how the government responded or didn’t to their irregularities need to be vigorously debated but Gandhi trivialises his argument — and also debases it.
The Modi surname appended by different communities denotes multiple identities across castes and geography. To link theft to this name is damning a community. Ironically, this exact same framework and strategy is constantly deployed to polarise people. The recent Ali-Bajrang Bali talk, for instance, was intended to create a campaign thread that slotted Hindus and Muslims in silos and deny the possibility of a secular debate on governance. Similarly, the spectre of Pakistan and the Bangladeshi migrant are frequently raised to fuel a communal narrative against Muslims. Even the most recent anointment of Sadhvi Pragya Thakur is meant to push the falsehood that terror has a religion. Such talk dehumanises politics, reduces it to a transaction between collectives. It negates a foundational principle of democracy which is one person, one vote, one value; the vote is seen as an instrument to signal the pact between the individual voter and the candidate. Collective identities are invoked only to deny agency to the individual, relieve a person of her identity, undermine the very basis of liberal democracy.
Gandhi claims he doesn’t stoop low to conquer. So he should lift himself up. An apology, an admission of error would be a good place to begin.
This article first appeared in print under the headline: When Rahul descends