Politics and the English language
Like millions of fellow voters I have been watching the exclusive TV interviews given by heavyweight leaders, first to India’s major English channels and later, almost grudgingly, to the print media and Hindi channels.
India in election mode is a world gone crazy. All is magnified by enervating and threatening sounds: joy, anger, blind trust and obduracy.
There is even a certain subtext to the choice of English over regional languages, and vice versa. Recent interviews given by three major political rivals from Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra to the English channels have been run for days on the small screen and triggered headlines nationally. All leaders had chosen anchors known for their aggressive, no holds barred stance, but began by ensuring that they, not the anchors, came through as the alpha male.
Then came the linguistic spin. The leaders began replying in Hindi to questions being posed in English, till the hapless anchors also switched languages and began speaking in Hindi. It was only after this that the leaders gave interviews to the print media and Hindi channels. One such Hindi daily with a large circulation in the crucial states of Bihar and UP had the rare pleasure of getting an online interview, while its sister English dailies were overlooked. Subverting the usual pattern, they then chose to publish the great leader’s thoughts in an English translation.
What is happening, one wonders. Is the charisma of English, the language of India’s power pack, no longer what it was? Has a belated realisation struck the political class that a large number of Indian voters do not understand English? And the majority are located in the Hindi belt? Are those who can charm the masses and whip up a cultural xenophobia using debatable data and a few colloquial witticisms going to walk away with a major chunk of votes, never mind their past and present affiliations?
Fact is, whenever the old system begins to collapse in India, the official language of the ruling class also loses authority. The earliest official language to lose clout thus was Sanskrit, used only by the upper castes and upper classes. When Buddhism became the state religion, Sanskrit was unceremoniously ousted by Pali, Paishachi, Apbhransha. After the decline of Buddhism and the fracturing of the great Mauryan empire, Pali too lost out. Then, Islamic rule brought in courtly Persian and anointed it as the official language. Like Sanskrit before it, Persian was largely an aspirational medium, accessible only to the upwardly mobile and ambitious members of the Indian nobility (read upper caste Hindu males) . Ultimately, when India became part of the British Empire, the Queen’s English sent Persian packing from the courts continued…