The genre of political rhetoric is often known to be witty, acidic, incisive in substance. This however is not the kind of rhetoric we are used to hearing in politics at home. On the contrary, our politicians seem united in showing a singular lack of interest in acquiring any kind of mastery over such speech. Honed properly, rhetorical strategies can effectively counter an opponent’s attack. Punchy and substantive counterpoints can successfully tie the adversary up in knots over the premise of his own argument.
But this is not how our political leaders function.
Earlier this week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while engaging in an important discourse in Parliament, told its members: "The earthquake finally took place — the earth (Dharti Ma) was likely angered." Coming hours after an earthquake measuring 5.8 on the Richter scale hit Uttarakhand triggering tremors in Delhi, Modi’s comment was a jibe at the Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi. Earlier, while attacking the demonetisation drive, Gandhi had boasted that "the earth will quake" when he speaks in Parliament.
Most would agree that given the usually mediocre — if not outright poor — quality of Gandhi’s shrill, rambling speeches, this was an outrageous, bordering on ridiculous, boast. Gandhi seems to believe that pithy one-liners (remember "suit-boot ki sarkar") are an apt substitute for rhetoric driven by content. The problem here is not that rhetoric is missing from our political discourse, but that the quality of the rhetoric on display is utterly hollow.
More and more leaders, senior and junior alike, have come to imbibe its low standards. In his speech in the Lok Sabha this week, Mallikarjun Kharge, Congress Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha, said: "(Mahatma) Gandhiji sacrificed his life for the country; Indiraji (Gandhi) too sacrificed her life. Who came from your house? Not a single dog came from your family." His words were apparently meant to score a scoring point against the BJP and RSS’ dedication to the nation.
If anyone expected Modi to be prime ministerial in his speech (and that doesn’t mean reeling out figures and data of various projects,) they were in for a disappointment. The prime minister could have resisted the temptation of getting back at the Leader of Opposition in the same language. Instead, he chose to walk on the same terrain, throwing out one tawdry jibe after another at his fellow Congress members.
Responding to Kharge’s remark Modi said: "We are not brought up in this sort of obsequious tradition (Hum kutton wali parampara se pale bade nahin hain)." The next day former Congress prime minster Manmohan Singh, found himself at the receiving end of the prime minister’s quips. "There is not a single black mark against him despite all the corruption. Only Doctor saab knows how to bathe with a raincoat in the bathroom," Modi said in the Rajya Sabha.
Disturbingly, we have now reached a situation when there’s little to distinguish in the tenor and content of speeches delivered in the heat of poll campaigns from speeches made in the sanitised houses of Parliament. Politicians have made the shrill and vapid rhetorical campaign mode of speech, their primary form of engagement — in and outside the corridors of power. They seem impervious to the fact that blurring these important lines of distinction, and treating instead every forum as a poll podium, amounts to little other than lowering the overall standards of political engagement.
The rapidly degenerating content of political speeches these days rises little above the level of a schoolyard spat, but among political adversaries. So, the prime minister, despite the office that he holds, has no hesitation in speaking to Gandhi using the same hollow language directed at him. And taking a cue from the Congress vice-president, senior party leaders like Kharge too have decided to adopt a similar style of oration.
Rhetoric is a potentially interesting and incisive device of speech. But only if and it is laced with intelligent irony, not with petty brinkmanship. Recalling the famous speech by Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, may be useful in this context. Beginning with the iconic opening lines "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!", Antony’s speech is a brilliant illustration of what verbal irony can achieve in politics. Nearer to our time, we see such rhetorical strategies on display all the time in the British Parliament, where robust argumentation takes the form of verbal jibes, repartee, and intelligent humour. It is high time our political leaders reflect on the language they — sometimes unconsciously — take recourse to.
It reflects not the clever insights of Urdu poetry, but the fallout of a culture where all anyone wants to do is troll their opponents.
Updated Date: Feb 10, 2017 07:52 AM