Why do Modi and his supporters lack civility?

Last Updated: Mon, Mar 04, 2013 21:22 hrs

New Delhi: General elections may be more than a year away, but many politicians are behaving as if the campaign has already begun. The Congress is desperately trying to reach out to the alienated middle class. 

The Bahujan Samaj Party's leader, Ms Mayawati, has addressed political meetings from a replica of Delhi's Red Fort, to symbolise her prime ministerial ambitions. And another person who does not believe in concealing his desire for that position, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, has made a series of much-watched speeches of late. 

Yet Mr Modi's latest such effort, at the ongoing Bharatiya Janata Party conclave in New Delhi, also reveals a troubling side to this pseudo-campaign - its brazen lack of civility.

In his speech, Mr Modi, scheduled to talk about Gujarat's successes, instead launched a broadside, much of it well-aimed, at the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. 

Given that it is far from difficult to find reasons to criticise the UPA, it is unfortunate that Mr Modi decided instead to call the Congress party "termites" as the centrepiece of his attack. Like termites, Mr Modi argued, the Congress was destroying India from within - "you finish them in one place and they rise in another". 

This somewhat disturbingly violent comparison of his political Opposition to pests that need eradication is not the sole blot on Mr Modi's recent electioneering record. While Mr Modi has made something of a habit of such crassness, he is not alone - in fact, the Congress' Sonia Gandhi has never quite lived down her description of Mr Modi as a "maut ka saudagar", a trader in death, during the 2007 Assembly elections. But Mr Modi's combination of prominence and vehemence is, certainly, unique.

It can be nobody's case that politicians cannot attack their counterparts, dismiss their abilities or belittle their ideology. But there have always been lines, and when leaders - such as Rajiv Gandhi, on some occasions - crossed them, they paid a price. 

Mr Modi seems to believe in no such limits. This is in spite of the truth that, historically, India - particularly its middle class - has always preferred its leaders to be more statesmanlike than they are divisive and vituperative. Mr Modi now seeks, evidently, to break that mould. It remains to be seen how much success his strategy has - after all, India's electorate is younger than ever before. 

In the online world, where Mr Modi is much adored, civility is regarded as an old-fashioned phenomenon; this tendency has seeped into the adulation with which all Mr Modi's utterances are received - perhaps giving some observers the idea that such words are better received than they in fact are. But regardless of whether this strategy pays off for Mr Modi, the sad fact is that, in the process, the terms of political debate in India will be debased, perhaps permanently. 

Others in Mr Modi's party, and in politics more generally, should be aware of the risks of giving in to temptation and joining a race to the bottom.

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