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Thursday, September 2, 1999 Published at 14:19 GMT 15:19 UK

World: South Asia

India's politics of insults

Protesting at the attack on Sonia Gandhi outside the BJP office

By South Asia analyst Alastair Lawson

With the first stage of India's general election due to begin on Sunday, the rhetoric between the country's two main political parties - Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party - has grown worse.

The media is dominated by reports of scathing personal attacks made against Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, and the BJP's Atal Behari Vajpayee.

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The vitriol in the current election campaign is unusual in India where, until recently, the personal and public lives of politicians were kept strictly out of the public domain.

Sonia Gandhi has probably been on the receiving end of the harshest personal attacks made so far in this election campaign.

Her suitablity to become prime minister - as someone born outside of India - has been one of the major election issues.

Personal attacks

The BJP and its allies argue that her Italian birth should prevent her from assuming the highest ofice in the land. Congress and its supporters argue otherwise.

[ image: George Fernandes led the attack on Sonia Gandhi]
George Fernandes led the attack on Sonia Gandhi
This has led to the voicing of some controversial statements.

Defence Minister George Fernandes recently said her only contribution to India was her decision to have children in the country.

Those comments caused outrage among Congress supporters as did the views of another government minister, Pramod Mahajan.

He found himself at the centre of a political storm when a newspaper quoted him as saying that if she, as a foreigner, could stand for prime minister, then so too could British Prime minister Tony Blair, US President Bill Clinton and even Monica Lewinsky.

Congress retort

The Congress party seized on his comments as a monstrous slur, accusing Mr Mahajan of equating Sonia Gandhi with Ms Lewinsky - the former White House intern famed for her sexual relationship with President Clinton.

[ image: Pramod Mahajan: In the middle of a political storm]
Pramod Mahajan: In the middle of a political storm
Mr Mahajan responded by arguing that his remarks had been misconstrued.

As the row over Mr Mahajan's comments rumbled on, Mr Vajpayee also suddenly found himself the victim of reported personal criticism.

Congress party general secretary Ghulam Nabi Azad was alleged to have said that Mr Vajpayee has fathered illegitimate children.

Political evolution

Such acrimonious political bickering is a relatively new phenomenon in Indian politics.

The elections that immediately followed independence were all together more tolerant affairs, a legacy perhaps of Mahatma Gandhi's reluctance to criticise his political enemies in public.

Some commentators say the change began after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.

The following year a mosque in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh was torn down by a mob: the violence was condoned by some right-wing politicians whose inflammatory language is blamed by liberals for inciting the mob.

From the early 1990s onwards, regional parties in India began to assume more power.

They are often at loggerheads not just with the central government but also with their rivals in the state.

That too is blamed for the rise in political insults, as is another explanation: India today is no different from other democracies where such abrasive tactics are commonplace.

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