Most Indians, for good or for bad, have some expectations from their political leaders. They expect their leaders to have a modicum of education and awareness; to have their facts straight when they speak in public; to behave with dignity; and not to tell lies unnecessarily. These are by no means unjustified expectations. Narendra Modi, who fancies himself and is fancied by many as the prime minister in waiting, is failing miserably to meet these expectations. It would appear that he is so lured by the prospect of rabble-rousing that he treats facts with disdain. He made the claim, some time back, that under the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance, India had achieved eight per cent economic growth. It was pointed out that the correct figure was six per cent. But Mr Modi did not have the courtesy to admit his error. His most recent clutch of incorrect statements is enough to make any educated Indian blush. In a valiant attempt to whip up popular support among the people of Bihar, Mr Modi declared that Taxila was located in Bihar and that Alexander had been defeated by the people of Bihar on the banks of the Ganges. These howlers have now been in the public domain for five days but there is no sign that Mr Modi is ashamed of them. This only reveals his lack of intellectual honesty just as his persistently shrill attacks on his rivals exhibit his lack of dignity.
Mr Modiís errors deserve to be singled out but they should be placed in the context of the overall decline of the level of political discourse in India. On the awareness charts, Rahul Gandhi, the undisputed leader of the Congress and the self-styled spokesman of Indiaís youth, fares no better than Mr Modi. Apart from dismissing an ordinance passed by his own government as nonsense, Mr Gandhi also once famously described poverty as a mental condition. He was unfortunately not speaking about the poverty of his own mental condition. Such gaffes are an indication that political leaders like Mr Modi and Mr Gandhi are prone to take their audience for granted. They also believe in the adage that public memory is short. In the age of television, that adage should be believed at oneís peril. The suspicion is that political leaders are so driven by populism that they disregard facts and decency. What counts for them is winning a few rounds of cheap applause. Both Mr Modi and Mr Gandhi would do well to remember that to be popular is not to be populist and that the foot is always kept far away from the mouth.