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.”
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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 the same thing.
Of other abuses around the theme of “not being a man”, one heard often is “Humne churiyaan nahin pehnin hain” — We’re not wearing bangles. Recently, the Delhi assembly saw MLAs handing one another lipstick and other makeup used by women, apparently as an insult.
Napunsak, though, is something even the Lok Sabha is not comfortable with. On July 20, 1998, then Madurai MP Dr Subramanian Swamy used the word “impotent” for the Vajpayee government in the context of the Centre seeking repeated adjournments in the Cauvery matter in the Supreme Court. After parliamentary affairs minister Ram Naik protested, Swamy said, “I have used a parliamentary word to say that they are powerless, which means “impotent”. I did not use it in the Viagra sense!”
However, P M Sayeed of the Congress, who was in the chair, decided to expunge the word napunsak after Lalu Yadav said everyone understood “what impotent means”. So while “impotent” remians in the records, its Hindi equivalent has been removed.
While the colloquial turn of phrase in political discourse has often added to the appeal of leaders, it has also been used as defence for nastiness — and sometimes gone on to build sympathy for those who have been attacked this way.
So, the Congress retracted from Jairam Ramesh’s description of Modi as Bhasmasur (June 2013), the demon who consumed his creator, and Nitin Gadkari was forced to express regret for having called Lalu and Mulayam Singh Yadav “dogs”. (“…Kutte ke jaise ban kar Soniaji aur Congress ke ghar par talve chatne lage.”)