Home / Politics / Policy /  The problem with Mani Shankar Aiyar

New Delhi: On Thursday afternoon, senior Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar set off a political storm when he referred to Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a “neech aadmi" (vile man) with no “sabhyata" (civility). Even in a day and age when political discourse has been reduced to who wears a sacred thread and which religion they follow, Aiyar’s statement was shocking. The word “neech" in Hindi is often (not exclusively) also used to denote a lower caste person and many choose to read this as the underlying meaning of Aiyar’s statement.

Modi’s response was cutting. He targeted Aiyar’s educational credentials and implied that the statement was just another indication of the Congress’s feudal mindset. In his campaign speeches ahead of Gujarat elections, he brought up the issue over and over again. Rahul Gandhi, soon to be anointed Congress president, asked Aiyar to apologize. And Aiyar did exactly that, like a suitably chastened school boy, but not before calling himself a “freelance Congressman" without a firm grasp of Hindi. But even in doing so, he put a sting in the tale. “Do I apologise about the word low? No. Do I apologise about the translation low-born? Absolutely," he said.

The apology was clearly not considered enough by the Congress which, as it prepares for Rahul Gandhi’s ascension, is keen to highlight its focus on development. By evening, Aiyar, a long-time Gandhi loyalist, had been suspended from the primary membership of the party.

This is not the first time that the Congress has been embarrassed by the usage of the word “neech" in reference to Modi. In 2014, Priyanka Gandhi had referred to “neech rajniti", which Modi had said was a reference to his caste.

Aiyar is one of the original baba log of Indian politics. A Doon School, Cambridge alumnus (he was senior to former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi at both institutions), Mani Shankar Aiyar came to politics via diplomacy. He was an IFS officer (1963 batch) who served as a joint secretary.

According to a profile in The Telegraph in 2008, he travelled extensively with Rajiv Gandhi (who was prime minister) during that stint and wrote his speeches. Aiyar eventually quit the civil service to join politics full-time in 1989.

Aiyar has always had a way with words, but in Indian politics, quips and smart alec-y comments only land you in trouble. And Aiyar is no stranger to controversy. In 2014, he had called Modi a chaiwala, inadvertently providing a fillip to the BJP’s campaign about the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) being out of touch with reality. His entire political career, which has seen him serve as minister for panchayati raj; minister of petroleum and natural gas, and youth affairs and sports, has in fact been marked by one gaffe after another. And Aiyar doesn’t always target the opposition. Sometimes his jibes find targets within his own party.

An alumnus of St Stephen’s College, he mocked fellow Congressman Ajay Maken as a “BA pass from Hansraj College" who could not use big English words. In 2015, he caused yet another furore when during a panel discussion on a Pakistani news channel he suggested that Modi needs to be removed for the two nations to resume talks.

Aiyar is not the only Congressman with a tendency to talk himself into trouble. Shashi Tharoor too has landed in trouble. But Tharoor, unlike Aiyar, proved to be a fast learner. Aiyar’s latest statement is already being used by the BJP as election bait. Modi has been quick to label it as an insult to Gujarat’s son.

“Do I expect this statement to have an impact? Not at all. At the centre of the election debate in Gujarat is the state’s model of development. The voters have already made up their minds about who to vote for. All this is background noise," feels Abhay Kumar Dubey, a social science scholar at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

The chaiwala jab in 2014 was different, according to Dubey, because the Congress was on the back foot and anything said against Modi was bound to get played up. “The interesting point here is that the statement, objectionable and irresponsible as it is, only furthers the new lows that public discourse in Indian politics is touching."

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