Mani Shankar Aiyar tried to undo the damage he caused to the party’s prospects in Gujarat by calling Narendra Modi — who hails from a group classified under the Other Backward Communities — ‘neech’ (low or low-caste), but Modi sought to take advantage of the controversy by seizing on the remark.
“Hindi is not my mother tongue,” Aiyar, who hails from Tamil Nadu, said. “I didn’t realize that ‘neech’ could mean both low and low-born. It was not my intention to call Modi a low-born person,” he said, adding that he continued to maintain the description in the sense of ‘low person’ though not ‘low born person’.
His apology came shortly after Rahul Gandhi, the next president of his party, tweeted that he ‘expects Iyer to apologize’ for the tone and language he used against the Prime Minister.
Gandhi’s tweet came shortly after Narendra Modi seized upon the comment made by Aiyer to highlight the elitist bias of the Congress Party.
The Indian National Congress, which used to be called the ‘party of the notables’, was born during the British era in the elite section of Indian society that was almost exclusively composed of high-caste and well-to-do ‘local notables’.
The party continued to largely retain its elitist nature and continued to draw its leadership almost exclusively from the so-called upper castes, whether among Hindus, Muslims or Christians.
“Mani Shankar Aiyer called me a low caste, a low person.. Yes, I may be from a low caste, I may be low, but I do high work,” Modi said, extracting as much political mileage as he could from Aiyar’s comment.
“I urge everyone not to counter this using words. If you really oppose this mentality, press the Lotus button in the election.”
Other BJP leaders reinforced the message that the Congress Party was an elitist institution out of touch with the sentiments of the people.
“As far as the Congress Party is concerned, they believe that only one family has the right to rule this country,” said finance minister Arun Jaitley, arguably the second most powerful person in the government.
He said the party cannot come to terms with the fact that someone from outside the Nehru family was ruling the country, and this frustration is represented by Aiyar’s comments.
Jaitley was unwilling to accept Aiyer’s explanation that he only meant to call Modi ‘a low person’ and did not make any reference to his background or community, pointing to a comment made by Aiyar in 2014.
“That was his intention when he said a Chaiwala will never be the PM of the country,” Jaitley said, adding that the same class prejudice continued to reflect in his comments today.
Asked about Modi’s prospects for becoming the PM, Aiyar had in 2014 said: “Narendra Modi will never become the Prime Minister of the country. …But if he wants to distribute tea here, we will find a place for him.”
The controversy has come at an inopportune time for the Congress — on the last day of campaigning for the Gujarat state elections — and could help Modi reinforce his image as an outsider who continued to be attacked by the establishment.