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In ‘napunsak’ jibe, a familiar but potent political punch
The use of the word napunsak for Narendra Modi by Salman Khurshid, a man known for choosing his words with care, has kicked up a storm. The usage is complicated for several reasons.
One is the context in which it was used — while referring to the Gujarat chief minister’s role in the 2002 riots. Modi’s “chhapan inch ki chhaati” has been seen to signal machismo, and the riots as an instrument to show a community “its place”; Khurshid’s choice of the word could have been calculated, in this vocabulary, to deliver a counter-punch.
Two, Modi, in his speeches before the 2002 assembly elections, sought to link a purported ability to “breed” to riots and relief camps — evidenced in expressions such as “hum paanch, hamare pachees”. Sexual prowess, strength and the general call to masculinity have been invoked in a very mixed and disturbing way.
On Wednesday, the external affairs minister’s supporters were saying the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate needed to be cornered on the incompetence of the Gujarat government during the riots. Modi is reported to have himself said, “If women are feeling unsafe, we are not fit to call ourselves mard.”
At an election meeting in Farrukhabad Tuesday, Khurshid had said, “We don’t accuse you (Modi) of killing people… Hamara aarop hai ki tum napunsak ho. (Our accusation is you are impotent). You could not stop the killers.”
On Wednesday, as the BJP raged, the minister said there was no word more appropriate for describing Modi’s situation in 2002: “I am not his doctor… I have no business to be saying what his physical condition is. The word impotent is used in the political vocabulary to show somebody is incapable of doing something. Either you admit you are strong and fully capable and what happened was done deliberately, or say I made a lot of efforts but did not have the capability. If there is no capability, what is it called? Is it not called impotency?”
The use of sexist phrases is, in fact, common across the political spectrum, the participation of women in politics notwithstanding. This is not the first time the inability to “be a man” has been used to mock.
In September 2004, the BJP’s Yashwant Sinha called Prime Minister Manmohan Singh a “Shikhandi”, a transgender character in the Mahabharata. Despite an uproar, Sinha refused to take it back, insisting Singh was a front with no real control over matters.
In May 2012, Team Anna used the same expression for the same man — to suggest continued…