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Mani Shankar Aiyar, the Congressman with an irresistible urge to court controversy

Former Congress MP Mani Shankar Aiyar shot himself in the foot with his “neech aadmi” comment on Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But this wasn’t the first time Aiyar came up with an outrageous remark.

india Updated: Dec 08, 2017 12:21 IST
Saubhadra Chatterji
Saubhadra Chatterji
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Mani Shankar Aiyar,Narendra Modi,Neech aadmi
File photo of Mani Shankar Aiyar addressing a gathering in Jalandhar earlier this year. (HT Photo)

Envious Congressmen can’t forget how, almost four years ago, party vice president Rahul Gandhi showered praises on Mani Shankar Aiyar.

At the AICC session in the capital’s Talkatora stadium in January 2014, Gandhi singled out Aiyar, hailing him for his work in Panchayati Raj, a cause Gandhi said was close to the heart of his father, Rajiv.

If the former MP from Tamil Nadu’s Mayiladuthurai had stuck to his brief, he could have averted the ignominy of being rebuked by Gandhi and get suspended from the party this week. (Catch LIVE updates here)

But Aiyar seems to have an irresistible urge to flirt with controversy, often creating one himself.

When UPA came to power in 2004, Aiyar, a staunch Gandhi family loyalist who left his career as a diplomat to assist Rajiv Gandhi, was made the cabinet minister for petroleum. After two years, he was shunted to the comparatively lightweight sports and youth affairs ministry.

Aiyar maintained that he was a misfit in the sports ministry as he had little interest in games. He publicly opposed Delhi’s bids for the 2010 Commonwealth Games and the 2014 Asian Games. He argued that instead of pumping money in Delhi for the CWG, the funds should be spent for building sports facilities across India.

He lost the 2009 polls but controversies didn’t leave him. When Aiyar’s successor in the sports ministry Ajay Maken shot a letter to the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to complaint about his “obstructionist role” that cost CWG heavily, Aiyar hit back and said, “a BA from Hansraj College” can’t write words like ‘dichotomous’ as mentioned in the letter.

If that episode could be brushed aside as Congress’ internal squabbling, Aiyar’s chaiwala comment on then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi that he was welcome to sell tea at AICC meetings, handed a massive advantage to the BJP ahead of the 2014 general elections.

This time, Aiyar’s jab at Modi “bahut neech kisam ka aadmi” comes just three days after he drew parallel between’s Rahul’s election as party president with Mughal ruler Aurangzeb’s ascent. That comment too, was leveraged by Modi in the Gujarat election campaign.

But for Gandhi, these below the belt attacks on opponents, particularly the PM, comes when he is trying to change the party’s political narrative and its style of politics. There’s a visible change in Gandhi’s choice of words and issues to take on the BJP. And just when the Congress is trying to garner support from different castes and communities like Dalits and Patels in Gujarat, Aiyar’s unprovoked comments can dent the party’s campaign.

So, the Congress had no option but to suspend the acerbic former MP from the party’s primary membership to send the message that there’s no room for such foul and potentially damaging expressions in the party.

Sometimes, his swipes have sparkled with impish wit. At the alumni meeting of St Stephen’s college,

K Natwar Singh wrote in the visitors’ book: “I am what I am because of St Stephen’s.”

When it was Aiyar’s turn to write, he added a line to Natwar’s note: “Why blame the college?”

Mani Shankar Aiyar is an erudite scholar and brilliant orator. But his foot-in-mouth disease may extract a heavy political price from the Congress in 2017.

First Published: Dec 08, 2017 12:09 IST