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India's vitriolic election campaign -The Asian Age


As the general elections in India draw to a close in a few days' time, with results expected soon after, one cannot but be surprised by the vitriolic nature of the campaign that has been conducted so far by both the ruling BJP and its opposition rivals epitomized by the Congress.

When the campaign commenced weeks ago, there was of course that certain whiff of the bitterness that had come to characterise politicians' behaviour toward one another, but it was expected that election campaigns having been sophisticated affairs for decades this campaign too would be grounded on mutual respect.

That clearly does not seem to have happened. With people in West Bengal, especially in the Trinamool Congress, accusing BJP activists of vandalizing symbols dedicated to the reputed Bengali writer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the campaign has taken an uglier tone than before.

All the name-calling and abuse politicians and their loyalists have been hurling at each other might actually be creating a bad precedent for the future. Amit Shah has not endeared himself to Bengalis with his reference to Shonar Bangla as kangaal Bangla. For their part, Mamata Banerjee's followers have not made matters any easier by trying to prevent the BJP and other rightwing groups from addressing rallies in West Bengal.

At the other end of the country, Arvind Kejriwal is engaged in a two-pronged fight against the BJP and the Congress. The influential Mayawati's incendiary comments on Prime Minister Narendra Modi have resulted in a furious backlash from Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. With Rahul Gandhi going around India ceaselessly running down Modi through referring to his leadership over the Rafale affair as 'chowkidar chor hai', it was predictable that the prime minister's camp would hit back. What was indeed surprising is that it has been Narendra Modi himself who has hit back, in a manner unprecedented for a prime minister. In recent weeks, Modi has made clear his deep disdain for the Nehru-Gandhis, a stance that cannot have endeared him to liberals and historians.

The considered opinion is that Modi and his party will return to office, but in politics nothing is to be taken for granted, especially in the kind of volatility which currently persists in India. The campaign gets progressively poisonous, helped not a little by the prime minister's mix-up of clouds and radar technology in his attempt to explain India's surgical strike against Pakistan-controlled Kashmir not long ago.

That has brought down ridicule on him and the opposition was quick to exploit the gaffe. Modi only made things even more difficult for himself when he spoke of his e-mail communications with Atal Behari Vajpayee in 1986-87 when, as commentators and television anchors have gleefully been pointing out, e-mails did not come to India before 1992.

The elections will end, the results will be there. One waits to see if Hindu nationalism will have five more years in office or secular politics will make a return, in however tenuous a form. The more worrying truth is that the campaign could leave behind a bitter taste in the mouth for everyone, in India and outside it.