A jibe that marked a new low in electoral politics

Even as we eagerly await the verdict of the people on May 23, it is time to reflect on the nature of the political discourse this election season. We witnessed a new low in the campaign: the Prime Minister’s desperate fulminations against not just his political opponents, but also the late Rajiv Gandhi, who left us in tragic circumstances.

On May 21, 1991, tragedy struck the nation when former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was campaigning in Sriperumbudur on the outskirts of Chennai, trying to turn around the political fortunes of the Congress party. He was brutally assassinated by militants of the LTTE in a suicide bomb attack. In the course of his campaign trail, he had dreamt of a new India driven by technology.

The nation mourned the death of a leader whose patriotic fervour could never have been questioned. Rajiv Gandhi was critical of the bureaucracy for having failed to deliver services to the last man in the queue. He carried the hopes of young India on his shoulders. We lost him in the midst of our nation’s journey, but he left behind his vision, which brought about a revolution of ideas, laying the foundation of a modern, effervescent India.

Stooping low

Twenty-eight years later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while speaking at a rally in Uttar Pradesh’s Pratapgarh constituency, addressed Congress president Rahul Gandhi and said, “Your father was termed ‘Mr. Clean’ by his courtiers, but his life ended as ‘ Bhrashtachari No. 1 (Corrupt No.1)’.” His statement surprised millions of sane voices. Very few expected him to stoop so low.

The Bofors issue is dead. The alleged charge against Rajiv Gandhi was given a quietus by a judgment of the Delhi High Court, against which the then National Democratic Alliance government chose not to appeal. The court did not find an iota of evidence to support the alleged charge. I happened to have argued the case. Yet, the Prime Minister raked up the issue and taunted Rajiv Gandhi’s son, alleging that his father ended his life as “ Bhrashtachari No. 1”. That may be so in the jaundiced eyes of the Prime Minister, but not in the eyes of the law. Such a statement is antithetical to the cultural ethos of India. Mr. Modi should have at least respected the sentiments of Sonia Gandhi, who dealt with this personal tragedy with stoic dignity.

Rajiv Gandhi was Mr. Clean. The Prime Minister is aware of the tainted people surrounding him, including those who consider Nathuram Godse a ‘ deshbhakt (patriot)’. Hinduism has always espoused the path of truth, which is perhaps inconsistent with Hindutva, of which the Prime Minister considers himself to be an icon. Not the courtiers, but the nation recognised Rajiv Gandhi as Mr. Clean. All attempts to sully his name failed despite a premier investigating agency’s herculean efforts to do so at the instance of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Surprisingly, in Uttar Pradesh in 1989, Bofors did not even figure in the campaign in Amethi, from where Rajiv Gandhi contested. But this time, Mr. Modi tried to make it an issue.

A reluctant politician

Rajiv Gandhi was destiny’s child. It was Sanjay Gandhi who claimed to be the natural heir to former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, but his tragic death in an accident pushed Rajiv Gandhi to the centre stage. He was a passionate pilot and a reluctant politician. Rajiv Gandhi took up the mantle to lead the country after he lost his mother to tragic circumstances. No sensitive, thoughtful, cultured human being, certainly not one who holds the office of the Prime Minister, should have made such a statement.

Responding to Mr. Modi’s remarks in the course of an interaction during the Uttar Pradesh campaign trail, Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra said, “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.” Rahul Gandhi turned philosophical when dealing with Mr. Modi’s taunt. He tweeted, “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.” This was a dignified response, the response of a true gentleman.

Irrespective of who wins in 2019, Mr. Modi’s jibe will be remembered as a new low, not just in electoral politics but in public life. The example set by Mr. Modi shows that public discourse has reached its nadir, and Mr. Modi symbolises it.

Kapil Sibal is a Member of the Rajya Sabha, and a senior Congress leader