‘Neech’. It’s just a Hindi word that can never be used as anything but a profanity, no matter the intensity of protestations to the contrary.
It denotes the utter contempt the elite and the privileged reserve for the downtrodden and the dispossessed. A word that carries the weight of centuries of injustice meted out to the unfortunate.
A word that could cost the Congress the Gujarat elections.
Congress leader Mani Shakar Aiyar called Prime Minister Narendra Modi a ‘neech aadmi’ (low-born) a few days ago. No sooner did the expletive leave his mouth than the controversy snowballed, with the Bharatiya Janata Party expressing fierce opposition to the foul-mouthed outburst against Modi, who himself was born in a lower caste.
Realising his mistake, a defensive Mani Shankar Aiyar explained himself to the press: “My Hindi is not very good. Yes, I called Modi ‘neech’, but didn’t mean ‘low-born’; I meant just ‘low’,” he pleaded.
For someone whose grasp of the Hindi language is better than most others’, this seemed like a pathetic attempt at trying to wriggle out of a tight spot.
The 76-year-old Aiyar – born in an affluent Tamilian Brahmin family, educated at the world’s best institutions, a former diplomat of repute, a shrewd politician who has been in public life for decades, a man gifted with an articulation that few can boast of — has forever been spewing venom against Modi.
His prowess at Hindi and Urdu is well documented in his many interviews: thus, his assertion that his Hindi ‘isn’t very good’ sounds like a lame excuse.
This isn’t the first time that the Congress has hurled ‘neech’ at Modi. In the run-up to the 2014 General Elections, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra said Modi indulged in ‘neech rajniti’ (contemptible politics). Around the same time, Sonia Gandhi too said Modi has a ‘neechi soch’ (lowly thought process).
At a Congress meeting in the run-up to the 2014 General Elections, Aiyar had trained guns at Modi and said something that is now a part of political folklore: “I promise you, in 21st century, Narendra Modi will never become the prime minister of the country. But if he wants to distribute tea here, we will find a place for him.”
He said all this in chaste Hindi, mind you. That Modi became the prime minister has upset Aiyar even more.
His ‘suspension’ from the Congress for his ‘neech aadmi’ remark, while welcome as it points towards the necessity of maintaining civility in public discourse, comes forth as somewhat deceitful.
Other Congress leaders have called Modi ‘neech’ and worse, but no action was taken against them. Some of them were even promoted. Aiyar himself who lampooned Modi with his ‘chaiwallah’ comment, was praised and made the communications strategist of the party.
That he has been pulled up now smacks of reasons other than those that the Congress would have us believe.
Gujarat is in the middle of an important election and Rahul Gandhi feels the ‘neech’ remark could hurt the Congress’s chances as Gujaratis are unwilling to hear anything against Modi.
Thus, the plan is to demonstrate to the people of the state that the Congress has harshly dealt with Aiyar by showing him the door. This, however, appears to be a thinly veiled attempt at punishing uncivil speech – going by the Congress’s past record.
Aiyar has always been close to the Gandhi family, having been fiercely loyal to Rajiv Gandhi. But lately, things seemed to have taken a different turn.
For a man of sharp intellect, what explains Aiyar’s constant foot-in-the-mouth utterances? Especially when such comments embarrass and hurt his own party? At a time when the Congress is at its lowest ebb, a word here or there may make or mar its chances of reviving itself and re-emerge as the pre-eminent political force in the country. If common folk understand this, it would be naïve to believe that Aiyar doesn’t.
Yet, time and again, Aiyar has displayed his disdain for those less fortunate than himself. His classist, elitist self constantly pours scorn over those who cannot speak the Queen’s English with the fluency he commands or those who come from the hinterland.
Could it be that the old guard in the Congress feels that power is slipping out of its hands with a relatively young Rahul Gandhi taking over the new party chief heralding an era where the youngsters in the party steer it?
Or is it that while appearing to be embracing clean politics, Rahul Gandhi is letting some Congress loose cannons shoot their mouths off so as to get the best of both the worlds?
That the Congress is desperate for a win is undeniable and with Rahul taking over as party chief, nothing will establish his grip over the Congress as an electoral win in Gujarat. But will the vitriol that Aiyar and his ilk spit at Modi help the Congress sail or sink in Gujarat?
We’ll know on December 18.