Politician’s slur on Modi backfires before vital state vote
India’s opposition Congress party was under fire on Friday after a senior figure used a Hindi slur to describe Prime Minister Narendra Modi, forcing it into damage control mode before a state election.
Party veteran Mani Shankar Aiyar used the word “neech” which loosely translates as vile, low class and in extreme cases pervert, while speaking to a television reporter on Thursday, sparking widespread social media outrage.
The comment came before a vital test of popularity for Modi after a series of controversial economic reforms when Gujarat – the state where he forged his political career – goes to the polls on Saturday.
Modi, campaigning in Gujarat where his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party is locked in an intense battle with Congress, seized on Aiyar’s remarks, urging voters to show their response through their vote.
“I have nothing to say on a ‘wise’ Congress leader calling me ‘Neech’. This is the Congress mindset. They have their language and we have our work. People will answer them through the ballot box,” Modi tweeted.
I have nothing to say on a ‘wise’ Congress leader calling me ’Neech'. This is the Congress mindset. They have their language and we have our work. People will answer them through the ballot box. https://t.co/2McoZnaoar pic.twitter.com/icGqAphUzy
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) December 7, 2017
Aiyar was forced to apologise within hours and was also suspended from Congress, which denounced the “tone and language” used.
He said he “meant low level when I said ‘neech’”, adding that Hindi was not his mother tongue.
“So if it has some other meaning then I apologise,” he said in comments which drew more ridicule for his “elitist mindset”.
Zafar Sareshwala, a university chancellor, wrote on Twitter that calling Modi ‘neech’ is “actually an insult to the millions in the country who have come up to the positions of eminence only due to their hard work”.
The Cambridge-educated Aiyar also caused a storm before Modi’s 2014 national election triumph when he mocked the BJP leader, whose father ran a tea stall, as a “chai wallah” (tea boy). The BJP routed Congress and stormed to power.
Modi has used the “chai walla” jibe to his advantage, using the term to identify himself with India’s millions of poor as he seeks a re-election in 2019.
And in public addresses he routinely derides Congress campaign frontman Rahul Gandhi – the man likely to challenge Modi for the premiership – as a “shahzada” or prince.
The Harvard-educated Gandhi is the son of current Congress leader Sonia Gandhi and former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi who was assassinated in 1991.
But before the general election, the hardline Hindu nationalist faces a crucial test in Gujarat where he built his reputation as an economic reformer, with the state booming under his rule.
But turning around the national economy has proved more difficult and the Modi government reforms have hurt the very constituency of traders and small business owners who were his biggest supporters in the western state.