In late November, Tej Pratap Yadav, the elder son of Lalu Prasad, threatened to skin Prime Minister Narendra Modi because the security for his father had been downgraded a notch. It is a measure of how inured we have become to the ugliness of the language used in politics that this statement merited attention for just a day. We then moved on to hearing about the next example of political leaders abusing each other.
Thrust and repartee are a part of political debate, but now the natural expression of an argument is in coarse language. And since finding the right catch phrase and sound bite has also become important, this seems best expressed with abuse rather than with wit or sarcasm. Abusive language in Indian politics is not new. What is new is that political leaders, including those who occupy high public offices, regularly resort to such practice. This has led to the general debasement of the language of debate. This is the “new normal” in politics.
The grammar of political discourse has seen two kinds of debasement. One is the use of crude or abusive language to make a point, the point itself may be a trivial one The other is the use of devious language to make arguments to divide the body politic. Both have the potential to change the practice of politics altogether.
The process dates back to the 1980s. That was when, first in Tamil Nadu, the leaders of the DMK and AIADMK began to hurl the vilest of abuses against each other in public meetings. They were soon joined by the Shiv Sena when it turned on the minorities.
On the national stage, it was, of all people, Rajiv Gandhi, “Mr Clean”, who used some very disquieting language. We remember him saying, “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes” while referring to the anti-Sikh violence of 1984. This was followed by the sinister ad campaign during the 1984 Lok Sabha elections which, among other things, spoke darkly of the dangers posed by taxi drivers in the neighbourhood (mainly Sikhs in Delhi). Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister was also the one who, in the late 1980s, used the language of the street when he threatened his opponents (V.P. Singh) saying, “naani yaad dila denge”.
The Rath Yatra and the Ram Mandir agitation of the late 1980s/early 1990s gave birth to the language of hate in political mobilisation. The second rung leaders of the agitation, like Praveen Togadia and Sadhvi Rithambara, were the exemplars of using vitriolic language.
It is those seeds which took root and have since flowered. There are no longer any restraints. Here, Narendra Modi first as Gujarat Chief Minister and then as prime minister, has played a major role in making the coarse acceptable.
In 2002, after the killings in Gujarat and ahead of the assembly elections, Modi, then CM, freely used the language of scorn. In one speech, in September that year, he made that derogatory statement indirectly but clearly referring to Muslims: “hum paanch, hamare pachees”. He was pandering to the most extreme of prejudices. There are too many distressing examples of various kinds from that time. Sunanda Pushkar, then the fiancée of Congress MP, Shahshi Tharoor, as the “50 crore girlfriend” is just one.
It is unfortunate that even after becoming PM, Modi has continued to use language that does not befit the office he occupies. This has been seen in Parliament and outside it. Early this year, after Manmohan Singh, the former prime minister, made his speech about demonetisation constituting “organised loot and plunder” (perfectly legitimate parliamentary language), Modi in his reply spoke of Manmohan Singh being able to keep a clean image in spite of all that happened around him: “Dr Sahab is the only person who knows the art of bathing in a bathroom with a raincoat on.”
Outside Parliament, it has been no different. While campaigning for the Himachal Pradesh assembly elections, the prime minister compared the Congress to “termites” and asked the voters to wipe out the party. And during the Gujarat campaign, one of the gentlest of arguments has been, “Those who oppose the bullet train should travel by bullock cart”.
People take their cue from the prime minister of India. So when the prime minister uses the language of abuse, we should not be surprised that others — in the ruling party and Opposition — do the same. It has been legitimised by the highest functionary of the executive.
In 2015, Amit Shah, BJP party chief, made that statement to polarise the Bihar electorate when he warned the voters in the assembly election that crackers would go off in celebration in Pakistan if BJP were to lose. “Go to Pakistan” is, of course, a meme that people now just have to shrug off when it is hurled at them if they oppose Modi or the BJP.
Over the years, everyone has come to say whatever they want. In early 2014, the then Congress MP, Mani Shankar Aiyar, was too clever by half when he made that supercilious remark on Modi selling tea. In late 2014, Uddhav Thackeray of the Shiv Sena made his play for chief ministership of Maharashtra saying, “If a chaiwala can become prime minister, why can’t I hope to be chief minister?”
It would seem that we are destined to live with less dignity and more coarseness in the language of politics.