Incendiary rhetoric and sarcasm can be valuable political tools if used carefully

The picture was splashed all over the globe. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the lower house (Congress) of the United States of America was tearing a copy of President Trump's annual State of the Union Address in full view of everyone. Earlier she had extended her hand to welcome the President on the podium which Trump ignored. Was tearing the speech a payback time for the speaker?

Move over to the Indian parliament, the lower house LokSabha. The scene is the response of the Indian Prime Minister to the vote of thanks for the address of the President of India. The leader of the opposition Congress party Adhir Ranjan Choudhury has a habit of gesticulating more than what he says, often enough leading participants to miss the crux of what he says. The Prime Minister, lightheartedly, called Adhir Ranjan, as an example of "fit India" campaign highlighting his acrobatics while speaking. Adhir Ranjan is known to have compared Prime Minister Modi with dirty drain. Comparing former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Modi, Adhir said it was between the holy Ganges and a dirty drain. Was Prime Minister Modi paying him back?

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, in a political rally, said that youth in the country would beat PM Modi with sticks in six months from now for the government's failure to provide jobs. Referring to it, in his speech in the Lok Sabha, the Prime Minister said he had six months to strengthen his back with 'Surya Namaskar', a form in yoga. When Rahul Gandhi, who had been sitting quietly so far, stood up to interrupt the Prime Minister, then he was hit by the sharpest blow from PM Modi. Addressing the chair, he said that he had been speaking for forty minutes and now the electricity seemed to have reached the seat of the Congress leader. "Some tube lights take time to glow", he stated, calling Rahul Gandhi a dimwit or "tube light" in colloquial terminology.

It seems parliamentary exchanges have turned personal, so bitter is the political atmosphere. Not that bitter criticisms or attacks are fresh revelations. Historically there are many such instances. In US history, John Adams called Alexander Hamilton "the bastard brat of a Scotch peddler," accusations that Andrew Jackson's late mother was a prostitute. John Adams was the second president of USA while Andrew Jackson was the seventh. And see what the third President Thomas Jefferson had to say about his predecessor John Adams, "A blind, bald, crippled, toothless man who is a hideous hermaphrodite character with neither the force nor fitness of a man nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." The gold standard of political debate, according to the Americans, were the seven debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. Naturally, it would be worth your while to see what Lincoln said of his rival's policy on slavery, "It is as thin as the homoeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had been starved to death." Lincoln was called a mulatto, a mixed-race child born out of his mother's affairs with a black slave. Like Barack Obama was called a Muslim.

In political attacks, there is nothing such as the label of fair or unfair. Sarcasm often enough crosses the thin line between truth and falsity. Rahul Gandhi's incessant slogans of "Chowkidar chor hai", was born out of such bitterness. Evidently the person at the receiving end returns the favour whenever there comes an opportunity. Trump-Pelosi, Modi-Rahul exchanges are nothing unique but borrows from the same old tradition. Benjamin Disraeli, who served as British Prime Minister twice, made a remark about Prime Minister William Gladstone, "If Gladstone fell into the Thames, that would be a misfortune and if anybody pulled him out, that, I suppose, would be a calamity." And Winston Churchill, who even was given Nobel Prize in Literature, had this to tell of his successor Clement Attlee, "An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street and when the door was opened, Attlee came out."

Indian politicians, too, do not lack for wit and sarcasm. Once Sushma Swaraj, a minister in the Vajpayee government, mentioned how she chanced upon a book entitled 'A Thousand Insults' and added, "I don't know who wrote it but I know who reads it – Jaipal Reddy". Reddy earlier had made a harsh speech against the government.

While humour and sarcasm make a debate lively but the same needs to be restrained. Like the attack on Lincoln as mulatto or Jackson as bastard were in bad taste, so was Mani Shankar Ayer telling then-candidate Narendra Modi to come and sell tea in the Congress session, reminding all of the humble backgrounds of his rival. This, in fact, helped Narendra Modi's campaign in no small measure. Similarly, the jab of dubbing then-PM Manmohan Singh as 'weak' of weak by the BJP worked against the party, helping Congress to bag more seats than expected. A political attack must be well thought out and planned. Rahul Gandhi's "Suit-boot ki sarkar" had caught Prime Minister Modi on the wrong foot, forcing him to dress carefully thereafter but overuse of "Chowkidar Chor Hai" did not yield any dividend to his party.

Insults should not cross the 'Laxman Rekha' of decency. The tearing up of the President's State of the Union Address was perhaps a rather overdone reaction by Nancy Pelosi. The Trump campaign may use it to its advantage in next year's national election. Similarly Adir Ranjan or Rahul Gandhi, perhaps are not reaping any electoral dividend by their remarks which could be turned against them by their rival.

In today's world of social media, when everyone is a reporter and opinion writer, politicians must be aware of what they say or how they behave. President Trump had carefully avoided noticing the extended hand of speaker Pelosi and 'missed' out on shaking her hand but Pelosi had made it a point to show off the act of tearing the speech. Rahul Gandhi made the mistake of getting up to interrupt the Prime Minister when he was talking of Gandhi's comment that Modi would be beaten by sticks in six months.

In political arenas, one must know when to attack and how to digest the same to wait for an opportune moment to hit back. Quick wit comes naturally to some and with laboured efforts for others. Using incendiary rhetoric to paint political opponents is an art. If it does not come naturally, one must be careful and use it less often than being humiliated by sharp-tongued and alert rivals.

Views expressed are strictly personal

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