Debating India


Slander campaign

Saturday 11 September 1999, by VENKATESAN*V.

A new style of electioneering focusses on personal vilification rather than issues.

Monica Lewinsky. Party of eunuchs. Nothing more than a mother of two children. Suspicious deals. Elizabeth Taylor. Can a woman accuse a man of cheating her in politics? How does a bachelor have a son-in-law?

THESE are but some samples of the juicy exchanges between senior functionaries of rival national parties during the 1999 election campaign. Innuendoes and invectives are routine components of any campaign but all previous records were broken in the run-u p to the 13th Lok Sabha elections. The campaigns of mutual slander unleashed by the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress(I) have left a bad taste at a time when the electorate had expected a meaningful issue-based campaign.

Information and Broadcasting Minister Pramod Mahajan, who in a lighter vein sums up his name as PM and claims to be the eyes and ears of the P.M., started the verbal duel while he was campaigning in Maharashtra. He asked: "If we are so keen on having a foreigner as Prime Minister, then why can’t we have Bill Clinton or Tony Blair or even Monica Lewinsky?" Although Mahajan subsequently clarified that he did not intend to equate Sonia Gandhi with Lewinsky, the Congress(I), women’s groups and many commenta tors took umbrage at Mahajan’s remarks.

Defending himself weakly, Mahajan said that he only meant that no foreigner could stake a claim to be the Prime Minister of India, but dragging the name of the former White House intern, whose affair with Clinton led to demands for his impeachment, was seen as an indiscretion. Mahajan protested against the coverage of his speech in The Hindustan Times. The report filed from Mumbai was fair, he said, but it was deliberately twisted when published. He flourished a copy of the letter written by th e paper’s Mumbai bureau chief to its Executive Editor Bharat Bhushan in New Delhi in which the former distanced himself from the contents of the published story on the controversial speech. The Congress(I) and the Left parties objected to Mahajan’s act o f infringing upon press freedom. Bharat Bhushan stood by the published version.

Mahajan blamed the "dirty tricks department" of the Congress(I) for planting mischievous reports in newspapers that showed him as anti-women. He offered his regrets, but insisted that he was being vilified for something he had not said.

Mahajan invited another controversy when he compared Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar to Hollywood actress Elizabeth Taylor on the grounds that Pawar changed parties as frequently as Taylor changed husbands. Despite protests from NCP quarters, Mahajan did not apologise. The BJP unit in Maharashtra said: "The remark was intended to educate the masses about the reality with regard to our political leaders."

Defence Minister George Fernandes added his own gender insensitive remarks against Sonia Gandhi when he canvassed for NDA candidate Sushma Swaraj in Bellary. Fernandes accused Sonia Gandhi of contributing little to the country, except marrying Rajiv Gand hi and giving birth to two children. He defended his remark, saying he had only stated facts which Sonia Gandhi herself referred to in her speeches.

In a complaint to the Election Commission, the Congress(I) brought up the issues of the "personalised attack" and "gutter level tirade" against Sonia Gandhi by the BJP and allies. Senior leader Pranab Mukherjee and party spokesman Kapil Sibal urged Chief Election Commissioner M.S. Gill to issue a directive to the BJP and its allies to stop their "campaign of denigration". They said that Fernandes had mocked motherhood. In their memorandum to the E.C., they assailed Union Ministers Pramod Mahajan and Geo rge Fernandes for their "vilification" of Sonia Gandhi.

In an interview to a television channel, Gill appealed to political parties to focus on issues rather than on personalities. "If the elections were to have any real meaning, issues like better life and jobs should be discussed," he said.

Indirectly rebuking the BJP and its allies, Gill said: "If anyone in the country is going to make cheap jokes against women, what sort of a country are we; what sort of a people are we, what sort of a campaign is this?"

According to the model code of conduct during elections, criticism of parties and candidates should not touch on the opponents’ private lives, unverified allegations or things unconnected with public activity. "Above all, we should not demean our ancient world-admired culture, by any kind of undesirable remarks about our opponents, least of all women," the E.C. observed.

VAJPAYEE’S first reaction to the controversy over Pramod Mahajan’s remarks on Sonia Gandhi was that it was a closed chapter because Mahajan had offered an explanation. However, after the E.C.’s warning, Vajpayee expressed his distress over the transgress ion of the standards of decent and dignified electioneering. "I especially disapprove of any remarks about Congress president Sonia Gandhi, that are, or can be construed to be undignified," he said, adding rather belatedly that his colleagues’ remarks we re in bad taste.

He warned that such attacks could serve to shift the focus away from the real issues. He however affirmed that criticism of Sonia Gandhi on account of her foreign origin, political inexperience and as a representative of dynastic rule was legitimate. Whi le educating the people about these important issues, they should desist from saying anything that was gender insensitive or lowered the standard of the campaign, he said.

Vajpayee’s sermon had little impact across the political spectrum. NDA partner, DMK president and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi chose innuendo to attack his opponent, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam general secretary Jayalalitha. On t he campaign trail, Karunanidhi asked:

"If a woman accuses a man of betraying her, what does it mean? Is it proper for Jayalalitha to accuse Vajpayee of betrayal?" The AIADMK women’s wing protested against Karunanidhi’s "mischievous" misinterpretation of Jayalalitha’s statement, which referre d to Vajpayee’s mediation on the Cauvery issue.

Calling Karunanidhi a "rotten egg", Jayalalitha said: "The foul smell is now crossing all limits and becoming really intolerable." But in taunting Jayalalitha about the "betrayal", wasn’t Karunanidhi casting aspersions on Vajpayee as well, ask observers.

Congress(I) leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, in an interview to a television channel in Hyderabad, said: "A time may come when we may have to ask the Prime Minister how, without getting married, he has sons-in-law and daughters-in-law? Whose son-in-law? Who is married to whom?" Azad’s comments came a day after film star and Congress(I) campaigner Rajesh Khanna told a rally in Gujarat that Vajpayee does not have children, but he has a son-in-law. There were allegations earlier regarding the Prime Minister’s fost er son-in-law’s role in questionable deals. Kapil Sibal condemned Azad’s comments and Rajesh Khanna denied his reported remark. Vajpayee expressed anguish over the incident, and said that never in his public life had opponents made personal attacks on him.

The Congress(I) also levelled allegations against Vajpayee over the import of sugar worth Rs. 900 crores from Pakistan. It said the deal benefited Pakistan’s Army Welfare Trust controlled by the Inter-Service Intelligence and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawa z Sharif’s family. The Indian government denied the allegation saying there was no budgetary support for such imports. The Congress(I) spokesperson alleged that Vajpayee sacrificed the interests of the Indian Army and canegrowers to benefit Nawaz Sharif.

The BJP refuted any link between sugar imports and the Prime Minister’s Office. It released the names of the owner of the Kundan Rice Mill in Delhi which imported sugar from Pakistan. BJP general secretary K.N. Govindacharya said: "Its owners are no Otta vio Quattrocchis. It is an unknown Garg family of Naya Bazar, Chandni Chowk - a private party that imports sugar." He also said that the government imposed customs duty on the sugar imports, initially at 5 per cent and subsequently at 20 per cent and 25 per cent.

See online : Frontline


Volume 16 - Issue 19, Sep. 11 - 24, 1999

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