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Slogans being raised in Bhopal: Bachcha bachcha Ram ka, Raghavji ke kaam ka!
—Digvijay Singh’s tweet
Is baar bhi diya beimaanon ko vote to mahilaon ka hota rahega balatkaar.
—AAP ad featuring Arvind Kejriwal
If “someone else is driving a car and we’re sitting behind, even then if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course, it is. If I’m a chief minister or not, I’m a human being. If something bad happens anywhere, it is natural to be sad.”
“Wah kya girlfriend hai. Apne kabhi dekhi hai 50 crore ka girlfriend?”
“I say one should throw this money in Maya’s face and tell her ‘if you get raped, I’ll give you one crore’.”
—Rita Bahuguna Joshi
“Mulayam Yadav wants to become the prime minister. He should first try to get the job of a sweeper at the residence of the PM.”
“Loktantr ke mandir ko kisi pagal kutte se pradooshit na hone dein. Yeh janata ka farz hai. (It is the responsibility of the country’s people not to let any mad dog pollute the temple of democracy).”
—Beni Prasad Verma’s retort to Modi
“Guddi buddhi zhali pan akal aali nahi (Guddi has grown old but has not become wise with age).
—Raj Thackeray on Jaya Bachchan
“As time passes, the joy of the victory fades, just like a wife becomes old and loses her charm.”
Union coal minister after India’s win over Pakistan in T20
“For an international love guru like him (Tharoor), a ministry of love affairs should be created..”
—BJP leader Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi
“We ask, Didimoni, what is your fee? How much will you take for getting raped?”
—CPI(M)’s Anisur Rahman
“Aap to TV pe thumke lagati theen, aaj chunavi vishleshak ban gayeen (You used to cavort on TV, now you’re a political analyst).”
—Congress MP Sanjay Nirupam to BJP MP Smriti Irani
“Who among us has not followed women.... Arre bhai, natural hai. Hum aadmi hain.”
—JD(U) leader Sharad Yadav
discussing the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill
It certainly is telling of our standards of public political discourse when the 2012 recipient of the Outstanding Parliamentarian Award gets noted, not for his erudite brilliance, but for his crudity of expression. Not once. Twice. That irony belongs to JD(U) leader Sharad Yadav who, while discussing the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2013, in the Lok Sabha in March, said getting swayed by women on screen was ordinary, even for one his age. “Arre bhai, natural hai. Hum aadmi hain,” he said, without a moment’s pause to reflect on what he was saying, and where. “Who among us has not followed women?” he went on to say in the course of the speech. This of course is the man who invented a certain kind of crassness in public life back in the ’90s when he disparaged the women’s reservation bill as a project of ‘parkati’ (short-haired) women. Years of opprobrium from the liberal English media for that remark didn’t cure him: he repeated the description in the zillionth debate on the bill in 2009.
The cringe-worthy language our political leaders use regained focus after Gujarat CM Narendra Modi said last week that he would feel remorseful even if a “kutte ka bachcha” were to come under his wheel, when asked by Reuters if he regretted what had happened in 2002. A couple of days later followed the “burqa of secularism” remark, which elicited a prompt “naked communalism” retort from a Congress only too willing to extend the analogy. Politics returned once again to appeal to our baser instincts.
Some think this degenerate language is deliberate strategy ahead of the 2014 general elections. Afraid of a constructive debate on governance, political parties would rather focus on non-issues and generate shrill rhetoric to rally supporters. Indian Express editor Shekhar Gupta recently wrote a column suggesting the Congress had laid “a secular trap” to deny the BJP a win, one the party had walked into willingly. But Kumar Ketkar, chief editor of Dainik Divya Marathi, argues the opposition isn’t that daft. “Even they are benefiting from it,” he says. “Instead of corruption, the Congress’s corruption has become an issue. Why doesn’t the corruption of the Shiv Sena get talked about?”
BJP spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman on the other hand says bitter elections were fought even in the past but, invoking the ‘maut ka saudagar’ comment, she asserts standards have fallen dramatically in recent years. “Advaniji had the grace to apologise (to Sonia after levelling graft charges against her) despite his age, but they still called him names,” she says. Needless to say, for her, it’s the Congress that has strayed from constructive debate. “It’s more worried about who’s going to replace it.” Citing how the BJP-ruled Chhattisgarh government has tried to manage the waqf properties better, she asks, “Tell me one state where the Congress has done something out-of-the-box for minorities? Neither does it do anything, nor does it allow others to do anything. This degeneration shows their frustration.”
But then this is a malaise that afflicts not just the Congress or the BJP, it’s common to all parties, across languages. Ketkar blames the rise of the social media and the Modi frenzy online, something he compares to the popular fervour in the days of Advani’s rath yatra before the Babri Masjid demolition. “Even then, it was possible to criticise it. Today, you can criticise the BJP, but if you criticise Modi, it generates frenzy. Like in any frenzy, all genuine issues will become non-issues,” he says.
Politics has always had charged rhetoric. Gandhi called British Parliament a ‘prostitute’, and was called a ‘half-naked fakir’.
Social media is the battleground on which most of these wars are being fought. And everyone plays dirty—many leaders who get muck thrown at them are also the ones who hurl it at others. Congress leader Digvijay Singh can complain of being tagged as ‘Pigvijay’ online but he can gloat about being no modern-day Cicero. The flame-thrower that he is, he set several fires with his tweet on the exposure of MP finance minister Raghavji’s alleged sexual encounters (see quote above). Nowhere is derogatory political lexicon more institutionalised and popular than on Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy’s Twitter feed, so much so that it has spawned blogs dedicated to his lingo. Take ‘porki’, for instance, a word that he and others throw around both contemptuously and liberally. According to him, it’s a portmanteau word of the Tamil ‘porukki’, something many would consider offensive enough—the reference being to a scavenger—and a pig. Not just any pig but one that “wallows in filth”.
Social media, we all agree, wouldn’t be half as exciting without some of this colour and vivacity. It becomes a problem though when mainstream media tries to match its irreverent verve and attract some of its following. Even as we have been watching, a certain barstool-casualness has crept into our television studios, and invitees use crude remarks to get their few minutes of fame. Few would have thought that terms like ‘Pappu’ and ‘Feku’ would gain such easy and quick currency. Or women would derogatorily be referred to as ‘aunty’ or ‘mausi’. As Mumbai-based journalist and columnist Sidharth Bhatia says, “The mainstream media thinks it shouldn’t get beaten in the game and tries to get out there to get some of the ‘youth’ or ‘trend’ voice. It tries to be symbiotic to get some of the social media users to watch or read it.” And it’s not as though anchors can’t intervene effectively when the debate starts degenerating; it’s part of the tactics to draw TRPs.
“Certainly, a disturbing sound bite culture has come into our politics. But primetime TV is not all there is to politics,” says Derek O’Brien, chief whip of the Trinamool Congress in the Rajya Sabha. “The voter is discerning. She can tell soap opera from art.” (He didn’t respond to a query on some of chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s comments that have been deemed offensive.)
But as Rukmini Bhaya Nair, professor of linguistics and English at IIT Delhi, reminds us, politics has always been an “arena of charged rhetoric”. Mahatma Gandhi, for instance, had referred to the British parliament as a “sterile woman” and a “prostitute”, and Winston Churchill had returned the favour and called Gandhi a “nauseating” and “half-naked fakir”. “You have always had heightened rhetoric,” she says, “but in the past it offered a certain vision and vocabulary for the future but one cannot say the same of the discourse today that is extremely derivative and pedestrian. So, it is not the rising insult quotient that worries me today, but the ideas deficit.” India meanwhile remains stuck between two extremes—of key leaders who choose silence as strategy and of loose cannons who don’t think twice before firing their next salvo.