As the poll fever rises, many politicians have stooped so low that the political narrative is going below the belt -- at times, literally. While the league of such inglorious men and women has got the usual blabbermouths like Azam Khan of the Samajwadi Party (SP) commenting on the colour of a rival's "underwear", there are also hardened politicians like Kamal Nath of the Congress making remarks about the time when the prime minister was yet of the age to learn wearing trousers.
Campaign managers working with different political parties said often such controversial remarks are strategically made, including at the behest of rivals for obvious gains, to polarise voters and they are circulated widely through a well-designed social media publicity mechanism. In such cases, even a disciplinary action suits a narrative built on negativity, one such "strategist" said.
Khan, who was slapped with a campaign ban by the Election Commission (EC), an FIR by the UP police, a notice from the National Commission for Women, has remained unapologetic by saying that he did not take any name in his remarks, despite the viral video of his speech being apparent about actor-politician Jaya Prada being the target of his jibe.
Earlier, Jaya Prada had accused Khan of circulating her morphed, indecent pictures when she was in the SP, while another leader from the party had retorted that he once waited while her motorcade was passing by, hoping that she would come out and do a "thumka' (dance step).
Along with Khan, UP CM Yogi Adityanath, Union minister Maneka Gandhi and BSP supremo Mayawati also faced the EC ban announced on Monday, but no apology has come forth from any of them.
Despite a police complaint, Himachal Pradesh BJP chief Satpal Singh Satti has said he did nothing wrong in repeating a message that used a cuss word for Congress president Rahul Gandhi to counter his "chowkidar chor hai" (the watchman is a thief) attack against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
From the Congress, veteran leader and nine-time MP Nath, who is facing a relentless attack from the BJP ever since I-T raids were conducted on some of his kin and aides, sought to hit back over the weekend at the prime minister's nationalistic poll pitch by saying the country's defence forces were being fortified by Congress prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi when Modi was yet to "learn how to wear pants and pajamas".
Down south, Kerala BJP chief PS Sreedharan Pillai came under attack from other parties for allegedly saying at a rally that Muslims can be identified by removing their clothes, an apparent reference to the practice of circumcision. He has denied making the comments, despite a video of his speech doing the rounds on the social media.
In Bihar, Union minister Ashwini Choubey has advised former chief minister Rabri Devi to stay behind her "ghoonghat" (veil).
Another BJP leader, Vinay Katiyar, has allegedly asked whether UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi would be able to give proof to Rahul Gandhi that his father was former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.
Earlier, Katiyar had also targeted Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, saying there were already much more beautiful star campaigners in politics. Priyanka had reverted strongly, saying the comments reflected the BJP's mindset towards women.
Rahul Gandhi has been the target of numerous personal jibes, while some Congress leaders have also made personal attacks against Prime Minister Modi.
In Mumbai, actor-turned-politician Urmila Matondkar became a target of sexist remarks soon after stepping into electoral politics, with a sitting MP, Gopal Shetty, saying she has been given ticket because of her looks. Matondkar has been trolled for her inter-faith marriage, while she has also been accused of making "anti-Hindu remarks", which she has denied.
While the social media is teeming with derogatory remarks virtually against all senior leaders across political parties, the menace seems no less serious in campaign speeches.
"Hate speeches have become the main fodder for social media campaigns of all major parties. At times, such strategies are made for individual leaders, while in some cases, it is done at the party level," said one "poll strategist" who has worked for two different parties in different elections and is now advising multiple politicians in separate states for the ongoing Lok Sabha polls.
While most campaign managers declined to be named, independent political communications consultant Anup Sharma, who is mentoring a group of researchers working on a democratic sustainability think-tank, the Lentils Institute, said political parties need to realise that the voters, especially the youth, are well informed today and they care about real issues like jobs and development.
Sharma, who has worked on the campaigns of several senior leaders cutting across party lines, said some politicians are habitual venom-spewing motormouths while a few are ill-equipped to deal with the pressure of speaking without an agenda.
"I am told that a lot many campaign managers actually tell political leaders to make controversial remarks, especially those which have the potential to polarise voters on the basis of caste and religion," Sharma said.
If India saw its first "social media election" in 2014, the 2019 polls are the first for the 21st-century voters with an estimated 1.5 crore Gen-Z population in the age group of 18-19 years being eligible to cast their first vote and they are far more aware, open-minded and socially responsible, he added.