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Monday, August 30, 1999 Published at 11:23 GMT 12:23 UK

World: South Asia

Warning over campaign rhetoric

India's politicians have been told to clean up their act

India's Election Commission has warned the country's politicians to stop making personal attacks on their opponents.

Indian Elections 99
Full results
The warning came after a meeting to consider a complaint by the opposition Congress Party in response to comments by government ministers about party leader Sonia Gandhi.

The Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Pramod Mahajan, had to apologise for remarks in which he compared Mrs Gandhi to Monica Lewinsky, the former sexual partner of US President Bill Clinton.

[ image: Congress supporters burn an effigy of Pramod Mahajan]
Congress supporters burn an effigy of Pramod Mahajan
Mr Mahajan's remarks shocked womens' groups in India, who described them as an insult to Indian womanhood.

The remarks were also roundly condemned by the Indian press.

No punches pulled

In another incident, the Defence Minister, George Fernandes, said Italian-born Mrs Gandhi's only contribution to India had been her two children.

Leading feminist Brinda Karat: "It's definitely sexist"
And even the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, normally admired for observing personal decorum, appeared to make the issue of Mrs Gandhi's birth a campaign issue, although he has now called for an end to personal attacks on Mrs Gandhi.

The Congress Party hasn't refrained from scathing rhetoric either.

Mrs Gandhi and other Congress leaders have accused the BJP of working against the interests of non-Hindus.

Allegations of corruption in the prime minister's office have also been made.

No mention of private life

In its statement, the Election Commission - an independent body - said that criticism of other parties should be confined to their policies and past records.

It said that parties and candidates should refrain from criticising the private affairs of candidates not connected with their public activities.

It also said insulting or sexist language should be avoided.

"We should not demean our ancient culture, which is admired throughout the world, by any kind of undesirable remarks, least of all about women," it said.

The BBC's Daniel Lak in Delhi says that since both the BJP-led alliance and the Congress have broadly similar economic and social policies, negative campaigning seems inevitable.

The first round of voting in India's elections begins on Sunday, and continues over the next four weekends.

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