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People say everything’s fair in love and war. In India, elections are like political wars where everything’s fair. Personal attacks, below-the-belt barbs, juvenile coinages, childish acronyms and invocation of leaders long dead – everything is fair in the no-holds-barred hustings.

In the recently concluded electoral process in southern Indian state of Karnataka, the campaign veered around Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s Rs 70 lakh Hublot watch, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin and Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s inability to speak for 15 minutes about Karnataka government’s achievements. For a party that has ruled India for four years and for a Prime Minister whom many tout as India’s only global leader, such trivial issues in political discourse are uncalled for.

But when the aim is winning elections and not talking about development paradigm, this hardly matters – that’s the sad reality of Indian politics.

Electoral potboilers everywhere are about shock and awe. In India, these are mostly about slogans that become catchphrase for even those who are unaware of their political import. For example, during the 2014 general elections, even children were heard chanting ‘Modiji aane wale hain, acche din aane wale hain’ without even knowing who Modiji was and where he was supposed to arrive, or even what acche din meant.

In the 1970s, slogans about former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi – such as ‘gali gali me shor hain, Indira Gandhi chor hai’ – dominated the political discourse. The Opposition was scattered, meek and ineffective. The Emergency of 1975 gave it an opportunity to dethrone Indira Gandhi but it squandered it over squabble for power.

In the 1980s, when regional satraps began emerging on the political firmament and gaining key to electoral successes, attempts to foster communal divisions began in the right earnest. This was the time when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad launched the Ram Jamnabhoomi (site of Lord Rama’s birth) Temple at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh. The movement brought Samajwadi Party patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav close to the Muslims, earning him the moniker Mulla Mulayam, for ordering police firing on kar sevaks (someone who offers services for free to a religious cause) at Ayodhya where they had assembled for the construction of a temple at the Babri Mosque site. Twenty-eight people lost their lives in this on October 30, 1990.

The 1990s became further vitiated for the communal overtones after the Babri Mosque was demolished in 1992. The Bharatiya Janata Party, founded in April 1980, became a potent political power in Uttar Pradesh, the state with most number of seats in the Lok Sabha, as it won the 1991 Assembly elections riding on communal divide created by the police firing.

It was during BJP government in the state that the 16-century mosque was brought down, leading to the fall of the party’s government, too. Since the mosque demolition, there have been sharp lines dividing the two communities – Hindus and Muslims – in the country, especially in the Hindi heartland.

The Gujarat violence in 2002 ignited by the burning of a train in Godhra on February 27, which caused the death of 58 Hindu pilgrims returning from Ayodhya, concreted this divide. The violence, which many call riots and scholars call pogrom, claimed lives of 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus, were responsible for the rise of Narendra Modi as Hindu hriday samrat (king of Hindu hearts).

As chief minister of Gujarat at that time, Modi faced flak for what scholars called the state-sponsored violence against the Muslims and faced court cases but in 2012, he was cleared of complicity by the Special Investigation Team (SIT) appointed by the Supreme Court. The SIT also rejected claims that the state government had not done enough to prevent the riots.

In the proceedings terms as the Gujarat chief minister, Modi earned another adjective, Vikas Purush, for the Gujarat model of development. This is a contentious model as many say the state was already developed when Modi took over its reins but the popular belief remains that the state prospered during Modi era. (He was CM from October 2001 to May 2014.)

In the 2007 Gujarat Assembly election campaign, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi called Modi ‘maut ka saudagar’ (merchant of deaths) for the 2002 riots. This was an indecent remark and it backfired on the Congress. Modi, the master orator and the wordsmith that he is, used it to his advantage to say he wasn’t ‘maut ka saudagar’ but ‘mat ka saudagar’ (merchant of defeat).

Then came the 2014 general election. The ruling UPA dispensation drew public ire for the gargantuan corruption numbers in 2G, 3G and coal allotments. Robert Vadra’s land deals in Haryana and Rajasthan added another G to UPA’s woes: Damad G (son-in-law ji). Modi showed India a dream: of development, of scaling up the Gujarat model to national level, of setting right the Muslims like he had done in western state. Indians saw in him hope against a corrupt UPA government and a mostly-mute Manmohan Singh.

The Modi wave didn’t stop at the general election. The party under his stewardship and the election management led by Amit Shah has marched from one victory to another, winning states where the party had never won (such as the Northeastern states of Assam and Tripura, decimating the Congress to only Punjab and Puducherry. Karnataka is excluded because the results will be out after this piece has gone to the press.

Modi led the charge of moral degradation of electoral campaigns. From barbs directed at former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, to the aspersions cast on political opponents in general, the predictable and tiresome invocation of Pakistan, and reinvigorating the mandir-masjid argument, everything was sans the mask of ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’.

Modi and his colleagues shamed Kerala by comparing it with Somalia, pulled shamshan ghats (crematoriums) and kabristans (burial grounds) into the campaigning for the Uttar Pradesh state elections, predicted jubilations and fireworks in Pakistan if the BJP lost in Bihar, and mocked Rahul Gandhi.

In the UP election campaign, Modi coined the catchword SCAM and said it stood for SP, Congress, Akhilesh and Mayawati, as he appealed to the voters to get rid of them. The Prime Minister said BSP expanded for ‘Behenji Sampatti Party’. In recently concluded Karnataka campaign, Modi repeatedly addressed the Siddaramaiah ministry as ‘seedha rupaiah government’ (a government that takes bribes for work) and ‘10 per cent commission government’.

Low level of verbal exchanges, nauseatingly vitriolic rhetoric and vilification that makes political parties run short of nouns and adjectives became the hallmark of the hustings. Electoral successes for Modi and his party have proved that this crass campaign works when you are catering to the lowest common denominator, they sometimes work.

Our leaders should look at how elections are fought in the U.S. and how healthy debate prevails. In the American system, the two main candidates come face to face in presidential debates, which are sharp and issue-based, unlike the India polity that is caught in a web of petty politics and deception. Indian elections are fought on trivial issues. Decency and development are dirty words in campaigns. There are no references to pollution control, deforestation, school education and public health in the electoral political discourse. If there is, these occupy a small part when they should be the dominant themes.

As the quality of discourse lowers and political parties plumb new depths of vitriolic attacks, one only hopes 2019 will bring about some change to this disturbing pattern.

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