Should the Prime Minister of India campaign for assembly polls? In the end all elections get dirty, whether it’s taking place in the largest democracy or the oldest. Assembly elections in India get even dirtier and for candidates out on the hustings in Uttar Pradesh, it has a distinct flavor all its own. Doesn’t it demean the dignity of the prime minister’s high office to get barbs from a rival chief ministerial candidate like ‘I would request the superstar of our century to stop campaigning for the asses of Gujarat’? Or to hear Rahul Gandhi say in a press conference in Lucknow, ‘The Prime Minister is fond of Google searching, peeping into others' bathrooms’. In keeping with falling standards, Narendra Modi’s speeches too have sunk low to utterances like this one in a rally in Kannuaj, taking on Akhilesh Yadav: ‘Before sitting on Congress’ lap, remember the heinous attack on your father by the Congress in 1984.’
Yes, a political party is fully in its right to campaign vigourously and use all the ammunition it has in its arsenal. For the BJP, Narendra Modi is certainly its brahmastra. But for the rest of the country he is not just a BJP leader. One may or may not have voted for him, but he is our prime minister now. He is India’s face in the other states of the country and nations abroad. It is important to keep this demarcation in a democracy—the elected head and the party campaigner. The reason why Modi’s political speeches are not put up in his office’s website pmindia.gov.in-it only has his speeches delivered at official engagements. It’s of course imperative that the prime ministerial candidate goes all out to be the first past the post in the Lok Sabha elections. There the fight is to become the prime minister, so the candidate has to battle it out—there it’s up to him or her to keep a sense of decorum on the campaign trail. Similarly, it is fine for the BJP president Amit Shah to equate Congress (Ka), SP (Sa), BSP (B) to Kasab (though it beats me who comes up with these convoluted anagrams for him) as he should do all he can, in his wisdom, to win UP. But is it alright for the prime minster to do so too?
In any case, it doesn’t always work. Modi’s frenetic campaigning in the Bihar assembly polls in 2015—where also the discourse dipped to a new low with blatant communal and casteist speeches by many candidates—failed to get his party the winning votes. This is not to venerate prime ministers who never stepped out of Lutyens Delhi to campaign for any election. Former prime minister Manmohan Singh didn’t go out campaigning not because it would devalue the office he held but perhaps because nobody will come to hear him anywhere. All prime ministers from Jawaharlal Nehru to Indira Gandhi to Atal Behari Vajpayee have campaigned for assembly polls. But speeches that may have dealt with a local issue where the rally is taking place or taking potshots at a particular MLA’s failures mostly remained there. Today they are 24/7 on TV and the social media. So, when the prime minister says in Sultanpur, ‘Was the SP government elected to rape and kill our daughters and mothers?’ it may still make sense to the audience there as the reference is to the Samajwadi Party candidate in the constituency who has rape and murder charges against him. But when you see it tweeted around soon after, it sounds downright scurrilous coming from the prime minister. Then the argument that Modi’s campaign speeches in Uttar Pradesh are made as BJP’s leader, not as the Prime Minister, doesn’t wash.
As a citizen, a few days after watching the prime minister pay his solemn homage to the Amar Jawan Jyoti at India Gate on Republic Day, a fitting picture for a constitutional head of a proud democracy, to hear him bluster in Fatehpur, ‘If a village gets a graveyard, it should get a cremation ground too. If there is electricity during Ramzan, there should be electricity during Diwali too’, is certainly unsettling.