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The language of Indian politics & its discontents

Palash Krishna Mehrotra | Updated on: 6 May 2019, 14:23 IST
Modi Rahul

The war of words between Indian politicians during poll season often resembles a rap battle between gangster rappers. Every speech is like a ‘diss track’ in rap—where you go out of your way to show the other as a nincompoop while you yourself are not only above reproach, but also: simply the best.

Each day brings news of Indian politics having hit ‘a new low’, making one wonder that even ‘low’ must have a base value, unless we have entered a state of permanent infinite regress, a point of no return. Is it even possible to sink any further as far as our public discourse is concerned? Often, words give way to violence, as with the ‘one tight slap’ delivered to Arvind Kejriwal.

Curiously, while Modi sells himself as the whiplash rebel who is fighting the ole regime, it is Rahul from the GoP who appears to be the young mutinous challenger with a clean tongue. When Modi attacks Rajiv Gandhi: ‘started as Mr Clean, died as Brhashtachari No. 1’, Rahul is undeterred from his Munnabhai POA, choosing to respond with a hug. In 2014, The Caravan had carried a piece which remarked on the ‘surprising poignancy’ of Modi’s poetry. Modi, the poet, seems to have abandoned his vigil at the post; it’s Modi the verbally diarrheic demagogue, all the way to the moon.

Vitriol flies back and forth like black ink in a schoolroom, and yet, our ability to be shocked anymore stands vastly diminished. Over the last five years, we have become used to right-wing trolls, insulting memes and bots (programmed by humans) spewing poison. It happened when Gauri Lankesh was assassinated. It’s not easy to forget. All boundaries were crossed. Hurling abuses at the dead was the new normal.

In comparison, the 1990s seem like a golden age of political speechmaking, a time when taking digs at each other had a touch of mofussil shayari, a quality of gentleness to it. When the opposition lobbed a freshly-minted couplet at V P Singh (targeting his princely roots): ‘V P Singh raja hai/ CIA ka baja hai’, V P Singh’s homies responded with: ‘Raja nahin fakir hai/ Desh ki lakeer hai.’

Compare that to what’s happening now: when Javed Akhtar speaks out against the burqa and the ghoonghat, the Karni Sena responds with: ‘We’ll gouge out your eyes, pull out your tongue.’

Donald Trump, an expert at name-calling opponents, pales in comparison to his Indian counterparts. The Indian politician can in fact learn from Donald, whose vocabulary has a touch of the folksy, a harmless childish fairytale-ish tinge: Crooked Hilary (like a witch on a broom in a Brothers Grimm tale), Rocketman, Low Energy Jeb, Cheatin’ Obama.

At times, one is reminded of school, when the ‘seedha bachcha’ would get into trouble for no real fault of his, while the naughty ones knew how to work the system, scapegoat someone else. Take Sitaram Yechury. Referring to Hinduism, he said ‘it is a fallacy to say that Hindus cannot engage in violence.’
He made the unremarkable observation that the Hindu epics were replete with instances of violence. Baba Ramdev filed a complaint about Hinduism being defamed; Yechury was booked. Meanwhile, inflammatory talk of ‘ghar mein ghus ke marna’ and rhyming schemes involving Ali and Bajrangbali continue as usual.

The time isn’t far when the speeches of Indian politicians will start coming with parental advisories, like with film and TV: ‘This speech is PG 13’, ‘Contains scenes of graphic violence’, ‘Explicit Content’. Rahul’s speeches though would come with a ‘U’ certificate’.

He is like the well-brought up and well-bred kid, far from home, who will steadfastly refuse to mouth the new cuss words force-taught to him by bullying seniors in boarding school. He will suffer for it but he just won’t be able to say it.

If we look at the situation, from the perspective of politicians who have made an art of using colourful political language, one can understand their point of view as well. They will say: When Bandit Queen or Sacred Games does it, you call it art. When we do it, it’s lowering the standards. Just like there is poetic license, there is also something called speech-making license in the political heat of the moment.

Looking to the future, the election commission can formulate rules to make campaigning more interesting in times to come. After all, politics is a game, and like all games it has rules. New ones can be devised, like they are in cricket—only one bouncer per over.

We can have a week where candidates cannot refer to the rivals at all. You have to speak about what you have to offer, period.

This can be followed by a week where you have to say five charitable things about your rivals. For, no matter what the differences, all politicians, regardless of which party they belong to, are colleagues in the same profession. They understand each other more than we do. In a way, all the politicians are on one side (often changing parties like jobs, but never the chosen line of profession), while the public is on the opposite side. I’m sure politicians can find good things to say about each other. Them not we are in the same boat.

The third week should be dedicated to informed debate, where all sides need to leave rhetoric aside and argue logically against the opposing view. Nyaya, the traditional school of logic in Indian philosophy, can show us how to do so. Its primer, the Tarka Samgraha, was taught to schoolboys back in the day. It can be taught to adult politicians as well.

After the goodness is over and done with, we can allow a week of a no-holds-barred slugfest, when politicians can say nasty things about each other, have a go at their rivals, flaunt their profane vocabulary.

After that: voting!

Verbal jockeying, even in the present day, can have its fine moments though. NDTV.com reports that when Mamata Banerjee entered Chandrakona town for last minute campaigning, she was greeted with slogans of ‘Jai Shri Ram’. She stopped the car, rolled down the window and called out to those who had shouted the slogan to come and talk to her. They bolted. Mamata muttered ‘Haridas’ under her breath and continued on her way. ‘Haridas’ explains the report ‘is used by Bengalis to mock those suffering from delusions of grandeur.’

Even the political war of words can have its nuances. It’s called the terrible beauty of war.

(The writer is the author of The Butterfly Generation & the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India)

Disclaimer:  The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author.

First published: 6 May 2019, 13:54 IST