In an infamous hate speech, Varun Gandhi threatens to cut off the hands of people who endanger Hindus and mocks names such as Karimullah and Mazharullah. His mother responds to the Mayawati government’s decision to book him under the National Security Act by saying that an unmarried and childless Mayawati is incapable of understanding a mother’s pain.
Elsewhere, MDMK leader Vaiko warns of a bloodbath in Tamil Nadu if any harm comes to LTTE leader Prabhakaran as the Sri Lankan army closes in on him. Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray calls the nation’s prime minister a eunuch.These politicians are lightweights who matter only in little political jagirs (holdings) that are often protected by walls of regional and caste pride. They do not deserve to be taken seriously during a national election. But unfortunately, this year they have to be, for two reasons.
One, this promises to be a deeply fractured vote that could leave the two national parties at the mercy of political satraps who have no national vision, but who know that even a dozen parliamentary seats will earn them disproportionate power.
Two, the national leaders have also decided to borrow a few lowly tricks from the rabble-rousers: Witness Narendra Modi’s dismissal of the Congress as an old lady and the war of words between the usually mild-mannered Manmohan Singh and L.K. Advani. Looking at this cheap sniping, you’ll be hard-pressed to guess that India is in the midst of a severe slowdown and faces what is perhaps its greatest security threat ever.
Rhetoric is part of the art of popular politics, which is why Manmohan Singh’s attempt to distinguish between the talkers and the doers (or Advani and himself) is a bit weak. US President Barack Obama showed to mesmerizing effect why oratory and rhetoric matter. India, too, has had more than its fair share of great public speakers—from Jawaharlal Nehru to Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
But there is an important distinction between powerful oratory and cheap rabble-rousing, which is something that seems to have been forgotten in these elections.
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