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Wednesday, December 11, 2019

What the bad language signifies

Speeches in poor taste are not new in Maharashtra. Ajit Pawar’s resort to a tested strategy speaks of a deeper malaise

Written by Suhas Palshikar | Published: April 22, 2013 12:08:19 am

Speeches in poor taste are not new in Maharashtra. Ajit Pawar’s resort to a tested strategy speaks of a deeper malaise

What should be the language of politics? Or,to be more precise,what should the language of politicians in power be? This issue captured headlines in the Marathi media recently. Much indignation was expressed over the indefensible remarks by Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar (not directed at anyone in particular). He did something unusual,at least by the standards of politics in the state. In a public speech,he gave vent to his frustration against those pressing the government to ensure adequate water supply to various drought-hit areas of the state. While doing this,he used coarse language,raw imagery and crude humour. The speech was,by any count,in bad taste and unbecoming of a leader aspiring to be chief minister. What went unnoticed was the possible cause behind his unbecoming outburst.

Speeches in bad taste are not new to the state and it is ironic that the Shiv Sena and its breakaway group,the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS),should be at the forefront of the protests. By picking up the convenient agenda of demanding Ajit Pawar’s resignation,the opposition and media have skipped an opportunity to debate public decency and the causes that prompt indecency.

The Shiv Sena made popular this genre of politics: effective public use of unspeakable language. Even before the Shiv Sena,a famous literary and public figure,Acharya Atre (1898-1969) was known for public speeches that held to no bars of civilised language. Atre was a gifted public speaker,journalist and literary author with delicate sensibilities. But he used language and the gift of the gab in such a way that for one generation,polemics was reduced to below-the-belt attacks on opponents. Sena chief Bal Thackeray went a step further and strategised the use of unacceptable language and idiom to caricature communities and leaders he was opposing. This strategy worked in the mid-1990s. Following him,his nephew Raj Thackeray too has mastered the art of mimicry and venomous verbal attack on his targets. In fact,the Shiv Sena,and later the MNS,brought a new culture of politics to the state. This new culture is not only about their brand of street politics,but consists of a form of public speaking wherein the performative aspect dominates. Crowds throng to the speeches of Raj Thackeray (in some measure Uddhav Thackeray) and earlier used to do the same for Bal Thackeray,mainly because of the expectation of vile attacks on political leaders (mostly of the Congress and the NCP) — their physical appearance and private lives — and because of the “dashing” image of the speakers who,at will,transgress the limits of public decency. Unfortunately,such transgressions are seen as political capability.

So,when Ajit Pawar speaks the same language,why is there so much surprise? And what does Pawar’s speech signify?

There seems to be an implicit understanding in the state that bad language and personal attacks are strategies available to only certain sections of the political class,and that those who are in politics in order to rule (rather than remain in opposition) have to abide by the unwritten rules of decency. The Congress and the NCP look upon themselves as natural rulers and are hence bound by these rules. Pawar has violated this unstated norm. Hence the all-round criticism and his apology. He sat at the samadhi of the late Yashwantrao Chavan and fasted for a day as a mark of penance.

But was that original outburst of cruel humour only a slip? Is it likely that Pawar resorted to this indecency merely out of exasperation? Just because he was unsettled,momentarily,by the flood of charges and criticisms against the departments he is controlling in the government? This would probably be a somewhat generous interpretation. It is more likely that Pawar’s so-called outburst of unseemly language is symptomatic of a deeper and more serious malady in the body politic of Maharashtra. And that malady is not just about the issue of public decency or its lack. The Shiv Sena used that style of violent vocabulary as a supplement to its vigilante politics,and later mastered the style to match its anti-Muslim politics too. It was an electoral strategy to mobilise support beyond its core constituency.

It is likely that Pawar has resorted to this strategy in order to electorally retain his core constituency. If the strategy of employing crude humour and candid language succeeds,then the NCP can play the Shiv Sena’s (and the MNS’s) game and attract the crowds without addressing important issues. There would be no need to respond to the critical challenges facing the party and the government. Currently,the NCP is finding it difficult to respond to several critical issues. Three such issues haunt the NCP and its partner in power. Drought,of course,is the most urgent. It epitomises related policy issues,too. The other issue is about farm lands being required/ acquired for development purposes. Both of these directly affect the ruling parties,since their core constituency still happens to be the rural agricultural sections. The ruling parties are pursuing policies that do not address these issues,and yet they rely on the electoral support of the adversely affected voters. The third related crisis is the Maratha demand for OBC status and a share in OBC reservations. Whichever way the demand is resolved,the Congress and the NCP are bound to fail in pleasing the ever acerbic pro-reservation Maratha leadership and large sections of the poor Marathas.

In this backdrop,the NCP faces the challenge of retaining its core constituency of the Maratha vote in rural and semi-urban Maharashtra. This constituency is growing uneasy,it has shown a propensity to impatience,has responded to the rhetoric of targeting an unidentified enemy and,above all,is being wooed by multiple players.

Pawar has witnessed the Sena’s and MNS’s apparent short cut to popularity,crowd-pulling and irresponsible strategy of demeaning the opposition. His uncle,Sharad Pawar,for all his faults,always chose to counter these strategies with a deeply wily brand of politics,resolutely avoiding the easy game of crowd-pulling. When the nephew adopts the strategy shunned by the uncle,is that an indication that the malaise,not of wrong politics but non-politics,is spreading across the board in the state?

The writer teaches political science at the University of Pune

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