In politics, the offensiveness threshold is not a rigid thing. It is remarkable how entertaining, and indeed civilized, downright nastiness could be when practised by the best political wits. Stretching the limits of the acceptable while remaining within the bounds of good taste is one of the more pleasurable challenges of oratory in a democracy. But such notions as good taste and wit have begun to sound precious when applied to Indian politics. The demagogy of Hindutva, in particular, exists almost entirely outside the pale of civilization. Mr Praveen Togadia’s statements about Ms Sonia Gandhi are not simply an affront to the leader of the opposition. They drag the register of politics down to a level of smut that would disgust the most hardened connoisseur of political mud-slinging.
Mr Togadia’s fame as a leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad is entirely the result of such public displays of deplorable taste. His chief inspiration in recent times has been no less than Mr Narendra Modi, and Gujarat has provided them both with excellent opportunities for plumbing new depths. Ms Gandhi’s country of origin and gender have afforded ample comic relief after the serious business of genocide. Mr Bal Thackeray has provided more fodder with his latest vision of a Hindu suicide squad. Mr Togadia has promptly informed his public in Gujarat that 200 Hindu sevaks have volunteered to be part of such a squad. Mr Ashok Singhal’s earlier boast of making a great success of it in Gujarat also falls in line with this kind of public rhetoric. The likes of Messrs Togadia, Modi and Singhal can no longer be wished away as part of a right- wing lunatic fringe. Neither is this purely a question of disgraceful manners. The words and deeds of this fringe are having a devastating effect on the fabric of Indian life. And its relationship with the Centre is certainly not peripheral any more. The character of the Bharatiya Janata Party cannot always be abstracted from the rumblings of its disagreeable underbelly. The prime minister will have to declare how he stands in relation to all this as soon as he gets his voice back.