Rivals trade insults as Indian election enters final stretch

Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party branded 'the butcher of Gujarat'

As India’s marathon election heads into its final stretch, with voting in 89 seats being held today, the political jousting is becoming shriller and more abusive. Rival party leaders are increasingly locked in slanderous verbal duels, trading insults and derogatory jibes, the likes of which the supervisory election commission concedes it has never heard before.

Two more rounds of voting after today for 104 of 543 parliamentary seats remain; and analysts expect the vituperation to degenerate further at political rallies and public debates before the ninth and final phase of polling concludes on May 12th and results are announced four days later.

Code of conduct
Indian elections, overseen by the independent commission, prescribe a "model code of conduct" that prohibits provocative and abusive speeches, particularly those invoking religion as these have been known to trigger sectarian violence in the multifaith population.

Hindus comprise more than 81 per cent of India’s population of more than one and a quarter billion; Muslims about 14 per cent; and Christians and Sikhs about 2 per cent each. There are also numerous smaller religious groups.


"The public discourse and debate by political parties has hit the lowest ebb in these elections," former MP Kuldip Nayar said. "The levels of animosity and nastiness on display were unpleasant and coarse, further degrading the overall politicians image amongst the public," he added.

The most recent episode occurred at the weekend when the regional Trinamool Congress Party (TMC), which rules eastern Bengal state, called Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), widely tipped to become prime minister, "a devil and the Butcher of Gujarat".

After Modi accused Bengal's firebrand and autocratic chief minister Mamta Banerjee of corruption at a public rally in the state last week, party spokesman Derek O'Brien hit back by tweeting that the "blood of Gujarat" was still fresh on Modi's hands.

Sectarian rioting
Modi was chief minister of western Gujarat state when it was was wracked by sectarian rioting in 2002 for some eight weeks in which more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, died. Although he was not found guilty of any wrongdoing by successive commissions of inquiry, his administration's failure to control the violence has perpetuated a legacy of distrust and suspicion.

Human rights activists and sections of the media accuse Modi of colluding with Hindu mobs by deliberately withholding the state law and order machinery as the mobs rampaged across the state.

Modi, who remains Gujarat chief minister, having been re-elected three times, and is the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, has refused to express regret for the killings. Separately, in northern Punjab state, former chief minister Amrinder Singh, contesting the elections from Amritsar, the holy city of the Sikhs and home to their Golden Temple, repeatedly called a rival provincial minister a "monkey".

Singh, a former Maharaja from erstwhile Patiala state in southeastern Punjab, gleefully declared at a public rally that he would hang Bikram Majithia “upside down”. In macho Punjab, where polling for all 13 parliamentary seats is takes place today, this is a highly insulting and demeaning remark.

Majithia retaliated by proclaiming he would “wring Singh’s neck”.

Manpreet Badal, another parliamentary aspirant in Punjab, attacked the provincial ruling Sikh-centric Supreme Akali Party as one comprising “thieves and thugs”.

The vehemence on the election trail rivals the clamourous campaigns launched by businesses to “incentivise” voters to cast their ballots by offering concessions and rewards. By displaying their index fingers marked with indelible black ink, a sign of having voted, millions of Indians can avail of discounts at restaurants, department stores and other businesses.

Traders in Delhi's wholesale Sadar Bazaar, for instance, offered discounts of up to 30 per cent on household goods. Several restaurants in the federal capital served free chow mein and petrol stations marginally reduced their fuel prices for those who voted.

Women's vote
Even India's leading multinational Tata Group, which owns Jaguar, Land Rover and Corus, the global steel conglomerate, is running "Power of 49", a campaign on television to encourage Indian women to vote. Women constitute 49 per cent of the country's electorate.

The national average voter turnout in 2009 was 58 per cent; but polling so far in the 349 constituencies that have already voted is about 65 per cent. India has more than 814 million eligible voters.

In a separate development, prime minister Manmohan Singh, whose Congress Party is desperately trailing in polls, suffered a personal political blow last week when his half-brother joined the BJP at a mammoth public rally.

Businessman Daljeet Singh Kohli was welcomed by Modi into the BJP amid fanfare aimed at mortifying the Congress Party. “My brother has worked very hard for the country but he was not given his due by the [Congress] party, so that is why I joined the BJP,” Kohli said at his initiation ceremony.

He was referring to a recent tell-all book by Singh’s former adviser that portrayed him as a powerless, dummy prime minister.Singh has been sidelined in the election campaign, addressing just a handful of inconsequential meetings.

Numerous polls, as well as the highly reliable but proscribed gambling syndicates, have forecast a defeat of the Congress Party by the BJP.