Has India’s election rhetoric reached rock bottom?

From allegations of favouring “infiltrators” to branding opponents as “puppets” and “Pakistani agents”, the 2024 campaign saw dignity take a backseat.

Published : Jun 03, 2024 17:06 IST - 3 MINS READ

Politicians across the board have missed no opportunity to slander rivals using religious, communal rhetoric through the course of the Lok Sabha election campaign.

Politicians across the board have missed no opportunity to slander rivals using religious, communal rhetoric through the course of the Lok Sabha election campaign. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

As a loud chorus of divisive slogans, inflammatory claims and vicious personal attacks echoed across the campaign for Lok Sabha Election 2024, it became disturbingly clear that no line of decency would be left uncrossed by political leaders in the relentless quest for power. From hints of favouring “infiltrators” and undermining national unity to dehumanising taunts branding opponents as “puppets,” “scamsters” and even Pakistani stooges, the torrent of poisonous rhetoric seemed never-ending. The inflammatory words flowed freely from the ruling BJP camp and opposition alike, with little regard for consequences in an overheated campaign that saw dignity, civility, and substantive debate tragically drowned out by the shrill discourse of provocation and polarisation.

Never before had an Indian election seen such depths of reckless hostility and venom in its rhetoric. Experts warn that the damaging effects could linger far beyond the final vote, with the widespread proliferation of disinformation and divisive messaging injecting dangerous levels of communal poison into politics. Political scientists lament the race to the bottom between parties trying to outdo each other’s inflammatory statements, suggesting that the whole spectacle has been utterly disillusioning for anyone who still clung to the idea of electoral politics upholding democracy rather than diminishing it.

Controversial remarks

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Banswada, Rajasthan, on April 21 accused the Indian National Congress of intending to distribute the country’s wealth to “infiltrators” and those with more children. This statement not only stokes communal tensions but also perpetuates stereotypes and fears among the populace.

Also Read | BJP’s subversion of the electoral process and Modi’s communal rhetoric undermine credentials of democracy in India

Narendra Modi in Gujarat on May 1 suggested that the Congress would confiscate one of every two buffaloes if it won the election, a hyperbolic statement that trivialises serious economic issues. Yogi Adityanath in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, on May 10 urged voters to support the BJP to see “Ram Rajya” in India, a term often associated with a utopian Hindu kingdom. This rhetoric risks alienating non-Hindu communities and exacerbates religious divisions.

Union Minister Giriraj Singh in Jharkhand on April 18 declared that those opposing Modi belong in Pakistan, a statement that questions the patriotism of dissenters and silences legitimate political opposition.

BRS leader K Chandrashekhar Rao on March 17 used derogatory language to describe Hindus, calling them “like gutter,” further deepening communal divides and offending religious sentiments. BJP leader and Assam’s CM Himanta Biswa Sarma on April 16 called Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi “Amul babies,” reducing political debate to name-calling and distracting from substantive policy discussions.

Rahul Gandhi in Lucknow on May 10 referred to Narendra Modi as a “puppet king” controlled by “tempo billionaires,” implying that the Prime Minister serves the interests of the wealthy rather than the public. Such accusations undermine the credibility of democratic leadership and foster distrust among citizens.

Rahul Gandhi in Solan, Himachal Pradesh, on May 1 claimed that if the BJP came to power, 22,000 people would be killed, an alarming and baseless assertion that spreads fear and panic among voters.

Jairam Ramesh in Jaipur on April 23 criticised Modi’s language, suggesting he is a “Vish Guru” (poisonous teacher) rather than a “Vishwa Guru” (world teacher). Such personal attacks divert attention from substantive policy discussions and reduce the campaign to a series of insults.

A more comprehensive, verbatim list of controversial remarks is given below: 

Union Minister Giriraj Singh in Jharkhand (Deoghar, Bokaro) on April 18:
“Jo loug Narendra Modi ko rokna chahte hain…aise lougon ko jagah Hindustan mei nahi…Jharkhand mei nahi…Pakistan mei hogi.” (Those who oppose Narendra Modi, don’t belong in Jharkhand or India. They belong in Pakistan.)
[Source: Deccan Herald]
Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Banswada, Rajasthan on April 21:
“If voted into power, the country’s main opposition, the Indian National Congress, would distribute the country’s wealth among ‘infiltrators’ and ‘those who have more children.’ When they (the Congress) were in power, they said Muslims have first right over resources. They will gather all your wealth and distribute it among those who have more children. They will distribute among infiltrators.”
[Source: CNN, The Wire]
Jairam Ramesh in Jaipur on April 23:
“The language Narendra Modi used suggests that he is not a ‘Vishwa Guru’ but a ‘Vish Guru.’ A person who never respected the ‘mangalsutra’ is now saying that the Congress will snatch women’s ‘mangalsutra’.”
[Source: Deccan Herald]
K. Chandrashekar Rao on April 30:
“Your government is the government of lathkors (incompetent). You won by a mere margin of 1.8 per cent votes by speaking lies. It means that you are pakka chavatas (deaf), daddammas (dumb), chetakani chavatas (useless fellows). If you fail to give ₹ 500 bonus, we will bite your throats and kill.”
[Source: The Hindu]
Narendra Modi in Gujarat on May 1:
“If you have two buffaloes, Congress will take away one if it wins the Lok Sabha polls.”
[Source: The Hindu]
Rahul Gandhi in Solan, Himachal Pradesh on May 1:
“Ek darr hai kya yahan par shanti rahegi ya nah…Yeh darr hai hamari zindagi mei bilkul, BJP hogi toh ladayi hogi, BJP hogi toh 22,000 loug marege kyunki woh gussa phailate hain, woh krodd phailate hain.” (If BJP comes to power, 22,000 people will be killed.)
[Source: Deccan Herald]
Narendra Modi in Gujarat on May 2:
“Pakistan is crying because Congress is dying here. Pakistani leaders are praying for Congress. Pakistan is eager to make ‘shehzada’ (referring to Rahul Gandhi) the next Prime Minister. This is not surprising because we already know that Congress is Pakistan’s ‘mureeed’ (disciple).”
[Source: Times of India]
Rahul Gandhi in Lucknow on May 10:
“Narendra Modi is not a prime minister. He is a king. A ‘puppet king’ whose strings are in the hands of ‘tempo billionaires’.”
[Source: PTI]
Mallikarjun Kharge in Jagadhri, Haryana on May 21:
“Arre bhai, voh toh jhoothon ka sardar hai, fir bhi aap Modi-Modi bolte ho. (He is the king of lies yet you are praising him)”.
[Source: The Indian Express]
Narendra Modi in Patiala, Punjab on May 23:
“All ministers are enjoying and the ‘kagzi CM’ (chief minister just on paper) is always busy marking his presence in the ‘Delhi darbar’. Can such people undertake development in Punjab.”
[Source: Hindustan Times, The Economic Times]
Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma on April 16:
“What’s the benefit of seeing the Gandhi family? They look fit for the Amul campaign, so they are Amul babies. It’s more beneficial to watch rhinos at Kaziranga than catching a glimpse of Amul babies.”
[Source: The Economic Times]
Congress spokesperson Supriya Shrinate in Himachal Pradesh’s Mandi in March, 2024 posted a picture of actor Kangana Ranaut on instagram with the caption:
“Mandi me bhav kya chal raha hai” (can anyone tell me what are the rates in Mandi?). The post faced massive backlash for being derogatory, prompting Shrinate to remove it from all her social media accounts.
[Source: PTI]

Is there hope?

Despite the vicious atmosphere, democracy activists refuse to give up hope, vowing instead to redouble efforts at combating the rising tide of hate speech and toxic divisiveness through civic education and grassroots movements.  Whether such optimism proves true in the coming weeks remains uncertain. What is clear, however, is that India’s political discourse has sunk to a low that many feel will be extremely difficult to recover from. Restoring democratic dignity and banishing bigotry from electoral arenas will surely rank among the crucial challenges confronting the nation - whoever emerges victorious from this most acrimonious of campaigns.

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