Inside The Congress

Foot-in-mouth Mani Shankar Aiyar has been suspended from the Congress – but is it too late?

The Congress leader has been a serial offender and this is not the first time he proved embarrassing for his party.

The irrepressible Mani Shankar Aiyar, Congress party’s former nominated member of Parliament in Rajya Sabha, hit the headlines once again. And, as always, it is for all the wrong reasons. In fact, this has become a habit with the career diplomat-turned-politician, whose name has become synonymous with controversies. Undoubtedly, Aiyar has a way with words but his remarks and statements invariably end up landing him in trouble and embarrassing the Congress. Once he gets going, there is just no stopping him.

In the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, he queered the pitch for the Congress when he referred to the Bhartiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi as a “chaiwalla”. On Thursday, he was once again in the eye of a storm when he described Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a “neech aadmi”, for which he was suspended from the primary membership of the Congress party.

On both occasions, the BJP seized the opportunity and lost no time in dubbing the Congress as an elitist party, which has disdain for those who come from poor families and belong to lower castes. In both instances, Modi was gifted an opportunity to remind the electorate about his background and how a chaiwalla like him had risen to the country’s top post.

The suspension came after Congress President-elect Rahul Gandhi tweeted his disapproval of the comment made by Aiyar.

In response, Aiyar blamed the remark on Hindi not being his mother tongue. “I meant low level when I said ‘neech’, I think in English when I speak in Hindi as Hindi is not my mother tongue,” Aiyer said. “So if it has some other meaning then I apologise.”

Foot-in-mouth disease

“The problem with Mani is that he has a foot-in-mouth disease. He just does not know where to draw the line,” said a former Congress minister

Actually, Aiyar has a lot going for him. The former minister is from the prestigious Doon School and St Stephen’s College after which he got a degree from Cambridge University. Though hard to believe (given his habit of indulging in undiplomatic talk), he joined the Indian Foreign Service and actually made a success of his career as a diplomat. He left the service to join the Congress following a spell in the Prime Minister’s Office when Rajiv Gandhi was in power in the mid-1980s. There is no doubting his sharp intellect, oratorical skills and grasp of subjects as varied as international relations to local governance. He was a no-nonsense minister – he handled the petroleum, sports and panchayati raj ministries in the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance government – who was not easily taken in by the bureaucracy.

And yet he is best remembered for his loose talk and his insistence on taking a contrarian position, which cost him his place in the Cabinet. Arrogant and pompous, he has been known to put down anyone who he believed was intellectually inferior. Though he has been a favourite on television channels for the past several years now, he is known for his disdain for the media. “Journalists are basically people who knew they couldn’t pass the Civil Services exam,” he often remarked. Humility is not a trait associated with Aiyar. When he and Jairam Ramesh wrote Sonia Gandhi’s speeches, he once famously remarked to Ramesh about a particular speech. “It could only have been written by you, me or us.”

Targeting his own party

Though the BJP was usually the target of his attacks, he was not above mocking his own party colleagues as well. He once publicly ridiculed former Congress minister Ajay Maken’s English language skills and the fact that he was not a student of St Stephen’s College. He attacked his own government at a Cabinet meeting as a sports minister for hosting the Commonwealth games. Aiyar even threatened to sit on dharna at Rajghat to protest against the games. Passionate about promoting panchayati raj, he differed with Manmohan Singh’s brand of economics and did not hesitate to say so. He took on P Chidambaram when he declared that he “one lakh per cent” agreed with Digvijaya Singh’s criticism of the former home minister’s handling of Left wing extremism. His position on Pakistan also differed from that of his party.

Aiyar has been equally irreverent about Congress president Sonia Gandhi. When he was not offered any position in the Congress party, his constant refrain was: There are two criteria for being drafted as a member of the Congress Working Committee. You should not possess a degree and should have undergone a bypass surgery. “Unfortunately, neither apply to me,” he would say. Aiyar’s own favourite story, which he recounted several times was about when he attacked Sonia Gandhi at a social gathering much to the embarrassment of the other guests. He would have continued but was cut short by a familiar voice from the next room, “Mani…I am here.” A report in a Hindi newspaper summed it up aptly with the headline, ”Mani hai ki manta hi nahin.”

In fact, there is a fund of Mani tales which have been doing the rounds over the years. One well-known story is about former minister and once a Gandhi family loyalist K Natwar Singh who wrote in the St Stephen’s visitor’s book; “I am what I am because of the college.” The quick-witted Aiyar noted below: ”Why blame the college?” When a IFS colleague, who was his neighbour, got a tall boundary wall constructed between their houses, Aiyar famously remarked, “He thinks he is protecting himself against me but he does not realise I can always stab him in the back.”

Despite his penchant for embarrassing the Congress party, he managed to get away with it because Sonia Gandhi was always indulgent towards him. He was accommodated in the Manmohan Singh-led government and later nominated to the Rajya Sabha. But he appears to have crossed the line this time and paid the price for it.

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