Namo low

Modi cannot claim to talk to aspiring India and at the same time play on its worst failings

Narendra Modi's supporters cast him as the challenger come to battle with manly plainspeak and a grand blueprint for India's progress. That aggression has, no doubt, energised the political debate ahead of the 2014 general election. In a rally in Chhattisgarh on Thursday, however, Modi showed neither vision nor energy, but a lamentable tendency to appeal to the basest in his audience. His speech traded in an antiquated, sexist parable to target a political adversary, Congress leader Ajit Jogi. Two sisters, one beautiful, the other physically infirm. The former is paraded in front of a groom's parents, who agree to the match. But during the wedding, the women are switched. By not announcing its chief ministerial candidate in Chhattisgarh, the Congress was doing the same, Modi suggested. In the same speech, he made a dig at the ill-health of Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

It was a low blow, not just for being personal, but because it reinforced the worst of Indian society's failings: the way it converts and judges women as goods to be traded in marriage, how it sets up the disabled for scornful laughter. This is not just a critique of Modi's oratorical style, which has often been called abrasive, but its content, which suggests that the politics of a leader who is promising the future is deadened to the inequities of this country.

In recent days, Aam Aadmi Party candidate Shazia Ilmi and Samajwadi Party leader Naresh Agarwal have been similarly guilty of dragging down the political discourse. The latter when he mocked Modi's beginnings as a tea-vendor, and Ilmi, when she broke into a laugh at a public meeting as a television anchor abused the home minister of the country. On all these occasions, the politicians played on or endorsed old and new prejudices the feudal scorn for the tea-vendor, the demonising of the politician (ironically, on a political platform) and the endemic sexism of the Indian male. As our aspiring representatives, they and especially, a prime ministerial candidate ought to be speaking a language of change.

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