POLITICS

Congress, In Its Over-Protective Zeal About Manmohan Singh's Modesty, Is Missing The Point About Political Low Blows

They tend to backfire.

09/02/2017 11:19 AM IST | Updated 09/02/2017 11:51 AM IST
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi with former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during the tribute paying ceremony for the martyrs of 2001 Parliament attack on its 15th anniversary, at Parliament House on December 13, 2016 in New Delhi, India.

Just because Manmohan Singh is soft-spoken does not mean his political opponents have to go soft on him. He might be a reluctant politician but he is still a politician, a prime minister who served out two terms. The Congress cannot put him up on a shelf and mark him 'Extra fragile. Please handle with care.'

Singh, every now and then, can unleash pointed barbs, as his speech of demonetization showed. It worked because he unleashes those barbs only now and then. But to expect Narendra Modi to meekly swallow those taunts in some kind of deference to Singh's status as an elder statesman of Indian politics, and his predecessor, is just plain ludicrous.

The Supreme Court once ruled that our freedom of expression stopped at Mahatma Gandhi. It upheld a complaint against a satirical Marathi poem about the Father of the Nation saying Gandhi was off-limits. "You can lampoon, satire or criticize historical personalities but you can't attribute expletives to them."

But to expect Narendra Modi to meekly swallow those taunts in some kind of deference to Singh's status as an elder statesman of Indian politics, and his predecessor, is just plain ludicrous.

The Congress wants to turn Singh into their modern day Gandhi. That's why they are so upset that Modi mocked him in parliament. And he did it by extolling his predecessor as an honourable man, just one under whose watch there were scams galore. And yet there was no stain on Singh's own honour, marvelled Modi.

"Bathroom mein raincoat pehan kar nahana, ye kala toh Doctor Sahab hi jaante hain. Aur koi nahin jaanta. (Bathing in the bathroom in a raincoat is an art only Doctor Singh knows. Nobody else knows that.)

First there were surgical strikes. Now we are seeing "shower strikes".

It was a mischievous taunt, mocking in tone but delivered with the flourish of a Mark Antony. In true "For Brutus is an honourable man" style, Modi, sneakily raised the spectre of corruption while piously attesting to Singh's reputation for probity.

The Congress is apoplectic. "The Prime Minister's language is that of a street-corner address," says Abhishek Singhvi. "It was in extremely poor taste," says P Chidambaram. "The lower they go, the higher we must rise," said Ahmed Patel echoing Gandhi himself, or perhaps Michelle Obama.

In true "For Brutus is an honourable man" style, Modi, sneakily raised the spectre of corruption while piously attesting to Singh's reputation for probity.

But to cry foul exposes the bankruptcy of the Congress. They cannot defend themselves against the scams so they are reduced to using Singh's personal reputation of decency as some kind of desperate protection against that ill-repute. They are, in effect, using him, to borrow Modi's taunt, as a raincoat.

Obviously Singh's comments about "loot and plunder" rankled Modi. He brought those up in his remarks proving that he is a politician who is happy to nurse a grudge and wait patiently to stick in the dagger at the opportune moment. It can even be regarded as being in poor taste but much of political slanging is in poor taste. That's the nature of the game and as one who chose, or was chosen, to play that game Singh cannot now claim he does not want to get his hands dirty.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Prime Minister Narender Modi, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Sr. BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani, UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad arrive for the flower tribute to the martyrs who sacrificed their lives during Parliament terrorist attack at Parliament House on December 13, 2016 in New Delhi, India.

To be fair, Singh has said nothing. He is a dignified man and never loose-lipped. It's the Congress that is fluttering around him like nervous nannies as if the former prime minister cannot defend himself.

And why should the office of the prime minister turn anyone into a sacred cow? In Britain, a satirical puppet show called Spitting Image loved to show Margaret Thatcher as a cigar-chomping cross-dresser and it invented affairs for John Major. Even the Queen Mother was not off-limits.

Sure, some kind of unspoken rule of etiquette means American presidents rarely speak out harshly against their successors and Obama has held his peace even in the age of Trump though who knows if Trump will return that favour. But Obama is an ex-president. Singh is still technically an active politician, speaking up in parliament. He deserves respect as a former prime minister but that is not insurance against attack.

The Congress has every right to be offended. After all being offended is our national pastime. But to threaten to boycott Modi until an apology is forthcoming is hardly warranted.

The Congress has every right to be offended. After all being offended is our national pastime. But to threaten to boycott Modi until an apology is forthcoming is hardly warranted. As an Opposition party the Congress should have built on the momentum of Singh's much-covered speech on demonetization to build a strong case against the BJP as different states geared up for polls.

To corner the government in parliament about a botched implementation of demonetization would have shown its mettle as a national opposition party. To create outrage over the Finance Minister's grandiose claims that there was not a day of currency shortage would have shown it was an opposition with teeth. To act as its elder statesman's knight-in-shining-armour is hardly likely to win it much sympathy among voters.

In their rather misguided over-protective zeal the party misses one fundamental truth. If the Prime Minister's office protects Singh from such perceived low blows, then that same logic will protect Narendra Modi as well.

In their rather misguided over-protective zeal the party misses one fundamental truth. If the Prime Minister's office protects Singh from such perceived low blows, then that same logic will protect Narendra Modi as well. Is the Congress ready to surrender that right? Does it want to get embroiled in arguments about whether every criticism of Modi is personal or not?

In the end, here's the other truth. Is much of this outrage about the fact that Modi gave us a visual of Dr Singh in his bathroom? Is it some kind of prudery about bathrooms that has the Congress so red-faced? Let's get real. Modi at least granted him a raincoat. It's not like he said the emperor had no clothes.

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