Congress president Sonia Gandhi while campaigning against Chief Minister Narendra Modi during the Gujarat Assembly elections of 2007, called Modi a maut ka saudagar (merchant of death) and perhaps lost that election with that one great stumble. Orator Narendra Modi seized upon this wrong choice of words by Mrs Gandhi and told the electorate that the Congress had insulted the entire Gujarati community who are well-known as merchants.
In the just-concluded Bihar assembly election, it was Mr Modi's turn to be wrong-footed. Campaigning furiously, Prime Minister Modi had raised questions about Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's DNA. The latter gave it a winning spin by telling the Bihar electorate that a Bahari (outsider) had cast aspersions on Bihari DNA. This message seems to have resonated among the voters.
The BJP president Amit Shah, who had masterminded BJP's parliamentary contest in UP in 2014, in a moment of lapse during the Bihar campaign, committed the ultimate sin in sledging. 'If BJP loses Bihar elections even by chance... fire crackers will be burst in Pakistan' he told an election rally in Champaran district. The Mahagatbandhan or the Grand Alliance of RJD-JDU-Congress immediately seized upon this reference and turned it around saying that it was a slur on the sizeable Muslim voters of Bihar.
In most democracies washing political dirty linen during elections is common. In fact, an industry of several million dollars, respectably calling itself political consultancy, has sprung up in USA to facilitate such political dirty laundry business. Consultants are expected to mine information on behalf of clients about rivals' past -- personal and political. Such research is refined and used in political advertising on media for not only profiling their clients' virtues but also malign rivals.
In the current race for party nomination for the US presidential election to be held in November 2016, three out of 20 candidates are putting out 62 ads a day on a single channel in Iowa state. And dirty advertising content about each other, including party rivals, is not considered out of court.
Nuanced sledging is par for the election campaign course. So also in political debates. But once begun, the sledging trajectory could go haywire and could harm political ambitions. Its sure outcome is one of irreconcilable political confrontations.
In India, Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi had famously told a rally at Delhi Boat Club (at the height of the Bofors controversy) Naani yaad diladenge, meaning he would deliver an unforgettable lesson to the opposition. In an Independence Day address from Red Fort, he had called the opposition "unpatriotic traitors".
In USA, President Obama's opponents in the Republican Party have questioned his American nationality as well as his religion. The pathological confrontation by the conservative Republicans has reached such a point that the federal government has not been able to get a regular annual budget passed through the legislature.
In India, the political players seem to have forgotten the vitiated atmosphere caused by the confrontationist politics of 1973 onwards that culminated in the 1975 Emergency. The period from the time of the Gujarat agitation, followed by the Jayaprakash Narain-led Bihar protests and killing of Lalit Narain Misra to the Emergency was marked by undiluted political bitterness.
In recent history, the demonisation of Mr Modi, especially from the Gujarat Assembly poll in December 2012 to the Lok Sabha poll in May 2014, had seen a recurrence of such political bitterness. Unfortunately, the political contestants have not put the poll-related rivalry and sledging past the poll, as happens in mature democracies.
After Narendra Modi assumed prime ministership, the ruling NDA and the Congress-led opposition are unable to transact normal parliamentary business, as they have not called a real truce after the poll battle. Each is accusing the other of being un–accommodative.
Sledging, means to heap insult, often to intimidate an opponent. Used intelligently it could be very cutting and could win the political debate. When invectives and profanity enter such sledging, not only is the case lost, but it also invites public opprobrium.
In the run up to the Bihar elections, the organisation seen as franchisees of BJP have let loose a stream of invectives against the media, intelligentsia, people considered secularists and minorities. In the recent controversy over the spread of intolerance, BJP party leaders and those in government and faceless Facebookers have unleashed a sledging marathon against anyone considered a dissenter. It will be interesting if some scholarly research delves into the effect of this vicious sledging on the outcome of Bihar polls.
In the Indian federal scheme of things, one or other state assembly election would keep cropping up at regular intervals. After Bihar, it is the turn of Assam. Already, there are political preparations for polls in Tamil Nadu, Paschim Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. Both in Tamil Nadu and Paschim Bengal the main political antagonists are well known for their profanity-filled sledging that often ends in physical violence.
One shudders to think of the consequences of such state-level political misbehaviour spilling onto the national level. RJD supremo Laloo Prasad Yadav, buoyed by his party's stellar performance in the Bihar elections, has already sounded the bugle for confronting the NDA government. This does not augur well for the nation's development and progress.
Can one hope that the ruling party has learnt a lesson from Bihar polls and will prevent misguided party missiles and coalition partners from inflicting self-goals that tend to further vitiate the national political and economic discourse?
[The author, a retired Indian Information Service officer, has held various positions in the I&B Ministry and the All India Radio and was Principal Information Officer and spokesman of the Prime Minster's Office in A B Vajpayee's tenure. This article reflects the writer's personal opinion and does not necessarily represent the views of IBTimes India.]