As 2019 Poll Battle Draws to a Close, India Registers Many Firsts; But Not All Can be Glorified
With the venomous political discourse sinking to a new low, the Election Commission was forced to ban four senior leaders last month from campaigning for varying periods of time.
News18 Creative by Mir Suhail.
New Delhi: On Friday evening, campaigning concluded for what is the biggest electoral exercise in the world — the Indian general election. The election itself — with more eligible voters than the combined population of Russia and Europe — is a unique feat worthy of international acclaim.
On the other hand, what will surely not bring glory to the country and will, perhaps, be the defining memory of this election is the manner in which bigotry, misogyny and personal attacks replaced public issues in campaign speeches.
So venomous were some of these speeches that the Election Commission, for the first time ever, imposed a nationwide ban on four senior political figures last month.
In fact, it was barely a month after the polling schedule was announced that Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath described the elections as a fight between "Ali and Bajrang Bali". He was referring to Ali, a figure revered by Muslims and Bajrang Bali, another name for Hindu god Hanuman. In an earlier comment, Adityanath had referred to Muslims as a "green virus" set to "engulf the nation". The EC banned him for campaigning for three days.
Another BJP leader, Union minister Maneka Gandhi, reportedly warned Muslims that if they failed to vote for her, she would not want to give them jobs.
“If Muslims then come to me asking for work, then I will think let it be, how does it matter? After all, a job is a deal.” The poll body imposed a two-day ban on her.
Senior Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan was barred from campaigning for three days after he reportedly alluded to former party colleague, now the BJP candidate, Hema Malini, and said she wore "khaki underwear".
BSP supremo Mayawati also faced a 48-hour ban after she was found guilty of appealing to a particular community — Muslims — to vote for the “mahagathbandhan” and not the Congress. She had made the comments at a rally in Deoband.
The gag order on Mayawati prompted her to cry foul. Her ally, SP’s Akhilesh Yadav, had remarked on Twitter, “EC directive against @mayawati ji begs the question: do they have integrity to stop PM from asking for votes in name of the army?”
Repeated invocation of the Army’s name in political rallies prompted more than 150 veterans to write a letter to President Ram Nath Kovind, urging him to intervene against the “politicisation” of the armed forces in the Lok Sabha elections. However, a controversy subsequently broke out in which officials in the President’s office denied having received any such communication and two of the supposed signatories denied any association with it.
A few days after the four leaders were banned, Begusarai district administration in Bihar booked another BJP leader, Union minister Giriraj Singh, for violating the Model Code of Conduct with his comments targeting Muslims.
“Those who cannot say Vande Mataram or cannot respect the motherland, the nation will never forgive them,” Singh had allegedly said. “My ancestors died at the Simaria ghat and no grave was built for them, but you [Muslims] need three hand spans of space.”
Unlikely spats also broke out between Modi and the person he claimed had taught him his first lessons in politics — Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar.
At a rally held in Maharashtra’s Wardha, Modi attacked Pawar for being family-centric. "Sharad Rao bhi bade khiladi hain, wo samay se pehle hawa ka rukh samajh jaate hain. Aur wo kabhi aisa kuch nahi karte jiske kaaran unko aur unke parivar ko kharonch aa jaaye, baaki koi bhi bali chadh jaaye to chadh jaaye (Sharad Rao is a big player, he can predict which way the wind will flow. He never does anything that will affect himself or his family, any other sacrifice is fine)."
Another attack in the same vein by Modi prompted Pawar to break his generally observed principle of not getting personal with his political rivals.
At a rally in Jalna, Pawar, in quite an uncharacteristic tone, questioned Modi’s interest in his personal life.
"I wanted to ask him [Modi] what he has to do with issues at my home. But then I realised I have my wife, daughter, son-in-law, but he has no one... there is no one in his family, how would he know how a family functions and how one takes care of his son and wife? This is also the reason why he keeps peeping into others’ homes. It is not good to peep into other people’s houses, Modi ji,” Pawar had said.
At another rally, Mayawati urged women not to vote for Modi as he had reportedly abandoned his wife as a teenager. “How can he (Modi) respect others’ sisters and wives when he has left his own innocent wife for political gains?” she asked.
Similar comments were made by Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee as well, who repeatedly asked how citizens could expect Modi to care for them when he had deserted his mother and wife.
Just when one thought that the level of political discourse had hit its Mariana Trench, Pragya Singh Thakur, terror accused in the 2008 Malegaon blast, questioned the bravery and martyrdom of 26/11 hero and former chief of Mumbai’s Anti-Terrorist Squad, Hemant Karkare. Thakur is the BJP candidate from Bhopal Lok Sabha constituency and is up against senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh.
Flanked by the visible support of BJP leaders at a press conference, Thakur described Karkare as an “anti-national” who had died because she had "cursed" him. Karkare was in charge of the investigation in connection with the explosion.
"The investigation team called Hemant Karkare and said if you do not have evidence, let her go. He said he would do anything to get evidence against her. This was his hatred. He was anti-national. He was ‘dharam virudh’ (anti-religion). You won't believe but I said, 'tera sarvanash hoga' (you will be destroyed). Just after ‘sawa’ (one-and-a-half) months, terrorists killed him," she said.
After a huge public outcry, Thakur retracted her words and said, “I felt that enemies of the country were benefitting from it [her statement]. Therefore, I take back my statement and apologise for it. It was my personal pain.”
Barely had she finished apologising for her remark about Karkare that she described Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse as a “patriot”.
“Nathuram Godse was a patriot, is a patriot, and will remain a patriot. Those who call him a terrorist should look within; they will get a reply in the election,” she said at a rally in Madhya Pradesh’s Agar town.
Thakur’s statements were seemingly supported by BJP leaders Anant Kumar Hegde and Nalin Kumar Kateel. Following outrage, party president Amit Shah announced disciplinary proceedings against them and asked the three to submit their responses within 10 days.
In a television interview, Modi said, “The remarks made about Gandhiji or Nathuram Godse are very bad and very wrong for society… She (Thakur) has sought an apology, but I would never be able to forgive her fully."
In recounting some of the most unfortunate episodes of the just-concluded campaign, one hasn’t even accounted for some of the most disgraceful remarks aimed at women ministers and political leaders. This includes a reprehensible campaign against Atishi, Aam Aadmi Party’s nominee from the East Delhi constituency.
After the election season ends, among the many questions that will be answered on May 23 will also be the question of how voters, through their ballots, choose to respond to such conduct.
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