Though he hasn’t formally assumed the role of President of the Congress party, Rahul Gandhi had a fire to put out fairly quickly following his filing of nomination papers. Senior Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar was suspended from the primary membership of the party following remarks he made against the Prime Minister. The Congress leader, Aiyar, called Modi a ‘neech aadmi’ essentially referring to him as a “low class person” who does dirty politics, in response to the Prime Minister taking aim at the Congress.
If you’re in the Congres, it’s not what you need the focus to be on, especially right before a crucial election. The remark is similar in tone and intent to the one he made against Modi before the 2014 elections calling him a ‘chai walla’. What followed was a wave election against the Congress. They sure aren’t hoping for a repeat of history.
The reaction was swift, from both sides. The Congress rushed into damage control mode. Aiyar apologized as Rahul Gandhi weighed in.
The Finance Minister Arun Jaitley called the remark a deliberate casteist statement.
BJP and PM routinely use filthy language to attack the Congress party. The Congress has a different culture and heritage. I do not appreciate the tone and language used by Mr Mani Shankar Aiyer to address the PM. Both the Congress and I expect him to apologise for what he said.— Office of RG (@OfficeOfRG) 7 December 2017
The Prime Minister during a rally mentioned Aiyar and his comments.
Mani Shankar Aiyer’s ‘Neech’ remark against the Prime Minister displays a mindset that only one elite family can be a ruler and the rest are only the ‘Neech’.— Arun Jaitley (@arunjaitley) 7 December 2017
In a first test of what Rahul Gandhi’s leadership, it’s commendable that he spoke out and took action, even though the issue at hand was a remark made by a senior member of the party. As journalist and author Swati Chaturvedi points out in a column for NDTV, his handling of the situation gave him the upper hand –
I have nothing to say on a ‘wise’ Congress leader calling me ’Neech'. This is the Congress mindset. They have their language and we have our work. People will answer them through the ballot box. https://t.co/2McoZnaoar pic.twitter.com/icGqAphUzy— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) 7 December 2017
“Rahul Gandhi showed who's the boss and reacted decisively in what can be termed his first decision as nearly Congress president…represents a clear break from the way the Sonia Congress did things”.
“With his action yesterday, Rahul Gandhi put the Congress on notice about the kind of presidency he would run; more importantly, he has enforced new pressure on the BJP which regularly uses uncivil language to attack him”.
The BJP does have a history of using questionable language in describing the Congress; once calling them termites during a speech in Himachal Pradesh.
“While the BJP is right to collectively and individually deride Aiyar's comments which smack of elitism and casteism, it seems to see no problem with its overt communalism. His damage control represents a break from the past and his own diffidence about leadership”.
Making snide comments about the opposition and its leaders is something he’s not shied away from. Some may call it an elitist mindset mixed with arrogance. He’s not one to shy away from controversy either.
With respect to Mani Shankar Aiyar, he seems to be a boon for the BJP. In a column for the Times of India, Indrajit Hazra, calls Aiyar, BJP’s most potent political weapon –
“Mani Shankar Aiyar is the most potent weapon that the BJP had. Try as he may, it is fellow Tam-Brahm Aiyar who has been the heave-ho godsend for the BJP. In 28 words, he has possibly reminded — at least disaffected BJP supporters — why the Congress found itself in a blind spot in the first place in 2014”.
“Well, of course, Aiyar is a smart man. He knows that what he meant was ‘a despicable kind of man’, and not what most Indians hear when confronted with the word ‘neech’. Regardless of what the truth is, ‘the now suspended’ Aiyar is symptomatic of the old Grand Old Party”.
In 2000, he got into a physical altercation with Samajwadi Party leader Amar Singh at a social gathering. Amar alleged that Aiyar, drunk, called him out for not making Sonia Gandhi the Prime Minister because she was a foreigner. Casting light on his mindset of people and politicians and the way he sees them, Aiyar then allegedly said to Amar Singh, “We belong to the Oxford and Cambridge set…”
Prior to the 2014 elections, at a meeting of Congress workers, Aiyar took aim at then Prime Ministerial candidate Modi saying, “There is no way he can be Prime Minister in the 21st century... but if he wants to come and distribute tea here we can make some room for him”. The BJP responded by stating that someone from a humble background as Modi will defeat a dynasty representative; what followed was evident for everyone to see.
As a staunch Gandhi loyalist, he was given the sports and youth affairs ministry post, one where he says he was a misfit. He opposed Delhi’s bids for the 2010 Commonwealth Games and the 2014 Asian Games; arguing that the money should be spent on improving sports facilities across the country.
In 2013, his successor Ajay Maken became the target for Aiyar’s verbal ire when he replied to a letter from Maken criticizing him for his obstructionist role, written to then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Aiyar replied saying in part, “a BA from Hans Raj College” can’t write words like ‘dichotomous’ as mentioned in the letter.
That reply came during a speech at his alma mater, St Stephen's College, where he was met with angry students from Hans Raj College, then stating demanding to bring together students from Hans Raj and St Stephen's and make them pronounce 'dichotomous', saying, “I do not believe the student from Hans Raj will be able to do it.”
He once referred to Sheila Dikshit as a “gangster’s moll” in a magazine column in response to she and others rebelling against then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1995. He’s made comments that seemed to justify the shootings at Charlie Hebdo citing it as a backlash for the death of Muslims. His comments were disavowed by the Congress.
There’s certainly a pattern that emerges looking at some of the controversies that Mani Shankar Aiyar has gotten himself into; all of his own making. He seemingly cannot pass up the opportunity to make sure everybody knows he’s someone who’s educated and sophisticated and ‘above’ a lot of other politicians. The upcoming elections might not hinge one way or another on him, but it’s certainly a distraction for the Congress.
More columns by Varun Sukumar