Ad Hominem and the Italian Barmaid: Culture of Debased Personal Insults in India’s Political Climate Today

Neha S.

The author is a student of English Literature in Exeter, England and has primarily indulged in writing flash fiction and opinions about India.

She can be contacted on twitter:

India really, really goes too far when it comes to insulting politicians. There, I said it. Of course, I understand this unpalatable phenomenon. One horse laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms (H.L. Mencken), and making fun of someone at an election rally is sure to evoke far more of a visceral reaction than charting out a catalogue of economic reforms. However, whilst we do have our fair share of low browed humor and attacking of political leaders’ intelligence and capability like other nations, we also seem to have outstripped most when it comes to debased personal insults, several from not merely the mouths of the proverbial babes (citizens) but rather direct from the horses’ mouths (politicians’ maws).

Sonia Gandhi is the unfortunate ‘star’ of such unwonted comments and insulting slander. From high ranking members of the opposition calling her a ‘bar waitress,’ to otherwise insinuating that she’s cheap, seedy, easy and of course calling out her Italian heritage at least once a day. Furthermore, the adopted children of such politicians, the internet’s troupe of warriors complete the circle by using a rather more distasteful vocabulary to impress the same point as their leaders. Even the faults of the son are transferred to the mother in a debauched set of metaphors handled by social media border patrol. Our own Prime Minister, back when he was a Chief Minister had referred to Sonia as a “Jersey cow.” Not one article on Indian news sites that posses even a mention of Sonia will go without a covert reference in the comments section to ‘Italian Barmaid,’ or words to that effect.

However, isn’t attacking Sonia Gandhi in that manner rather shameful? A woman who left behind country and family, language and culture only to come here and lose half of her new family in tragedy. Regardless of one’s political ideology, it is undeniable that Sonia’s life was a hard one, and that insulting her as a foreigner makes one no different from the British that call Indians ‘curry’ on the street. And what does it say about our political climate that the most prevalent insult used toward Mrs. Gandhi, a widow, mother and grandmother – are those condemning her sexuality, ethnicity and morals? Really, an almost seventy year old woman! It’s not like there isn’t anything to criticize politically, there are mistaken cabinet decisions, policies that may not have worked, and if you wish to be the archetypal opposition: then at least have the decency to lie about her politics than insult her as an individual.

And really, men don’t escape this barrage of ad hominem attacks either. PM Modi, who is also no innocent when it comes to making remarks like “fifty-crore girlfriend” is also unfairly attacked by the opposition parties about his married life, and the fact that his wife does not live with him, which is also an unwarranted and shameful line of taunting. Not a day goes by without someone or the other dredging up Shashi Tharoor’s personal life, and even the differently-abled children of some MPs are mocked cruelly whilst pictures of Smriti Irani holding unattractive poses or facial expressions are passed around. Even when it comes to history, the primary mode of defaming Nehru is to take two seconds to share pictures of him with women (most of them being either his sister or daughter, humorously enough).

M.O. Mathai had written, in Nehru’s time, that people often did make comments about the Prime Minister in the lewd sense. But it had not surpassed ordinary Vogue-ish rumor mongering and whispers, whilst today’s politicians are subject to the terms ‘bargirl,’ ‘insane,’ ‘rabid dog’ by their opposition (and recently, from within the parties!). Perhaps it has to do with egos? Of course, politicians shouldn’t have fragile egos, as a fragile ego is the one characteristic that would be a disqualifier for a political career. Yet as egos get more and more delicate, from ‘don’t spare me, Shankar’ to prolific defamation lawsuits today, the insults get even more personal, even more depraved.

Perhaps this is because the common person doesn’t like to think too hard about politics. Because economic policies and agricultural reforms are somewhat more arduous to comprehend, less reactive than simple mudslinging. The people want a simple answer to complicated issues, a straightforward assessment of a complex character. They, like America splits the world into ‘good guys’ like Britain and ‘bad guys’ like Russia, wish to see even local rank-and-file politics as split into an elementary, transparent good and evil. Hence, the members of the BJP see Sonia Gandhi as a ‘barmaid’ and Kejriwal as a layabout, Congress see Modi as a communal rioter and Kejriwal as a perpetual protestor, and AAP members just see everyone else as crooks. The politicians understand these self explanatory distinctions, fit their insults into the mold and are free to loosen their tongue.

But it is sad, no doubt. That the level of intellectual debate in parliament had gone from the poised and informative, yet determined arguments of the 1950s to the current lewd insults being machine-gunned from all sides of the House. That rather than criticizing Sonia Gandhi’s politics, one insults her principles. That just one bark is enough to set a crowd against someone, rather than properly listing their defects, or the holes in their methods. That a malicious smear campaign is all that is necessary to put an efficient person out of office.

It is not enough blaming merely the viewer hungry media for this, as both politicians and those voters who follow politics eagerly like a masculine saas baahu serial absorb and spew such insults. Such comments make it so that politicians cannot separate personal insults from the businesslike political ones, and this in turn ensures that there can be absolutely no friendship between politicians: the friendly rivalry between Nehru and Patel, could you imagine it with Modi and Kejriwal? The line between the multitude of political or capability-related insults and ad hominem attacks is a deep, wide gorge yet our politicians have managed to cross every step of the way. Yet in the end, how a political candidate copes with a vicious personal attack and their ability to craft a well-timed nasty insult may decide whether or not they pass the muster, and honestly: that sums up all that’s wrong with politics today.


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