As a cub reporter in 1981, I accompanied a senior journalist to the home of a top Congress leader in Hyderabad. He was talking to some partymen inside a room. From the visitors’ room where we waited, we could hear him shout a downright obscenity to refer to Indira Gandhi. Apparently he was furious with what the “high command” had done to him.
Those were the days when obscenities were more or less confined to private spaces in politics in India.
Now, look at an American example. In 2004, when US vice-president Dick Cheney got into a tiff with Senator Patrick Leahy, he famously shouted: “F**k yourself”. The US media was in a tizzy. The Washington Post printed the f-word verbatim, while The New York Times said Cheney used “an obscene phrase to describe what he thought Mr Leahy should do”. Fierce arguments flared up in the US if newspapers should reproduce dirty words uttered by politicians.
And those were the days when swear words were seldom part of the American political conversation. But in both India and US, as in many other democracies, filthy language is the new medium for the modern political narrative. As standards of political discourse take a severe beating, an argument is rarely complete without an invective hurled at the rival.
American public affairs research firm GovPredict said there were only 83 instances of lawmakers using curse words in 2014, but the number rose to 1,571 in 2017 and to 2,409 till November 2018. The use of 'sh*t' rose from 21 times in 2014 to 1,166 four years later, while 'f**k' saw a growth from only four times in 2014 to 410 in 2018.
The eunuch comment
But there is one difference in India. Many obscenities that Indians toss at rivals without a second thought, besides being savage and crass in language, are personal in nature. If the epithets they fire were bullets, half of India’s political population would have been assassinated. The latest example of this gutter language is the case of UP MLA Sadhana Singh concluding that BSP leader Mayawati was “worse than a eunuch”. Her basis for this putrid language was that by aligning herself with Samajwadi Party whose workers had once attacked her, Mayawati gave up self-respect.
The BJP MLA was referring to the 1995 incident of SP workers attacking a guesthouse where Mayawati was staying. This had forced the BSP leader to lock herself in a room and later say that she had feared rape. On his part, SP leader Mualayam Singh Yadav had shocked the nation’s conscience when he wondered aloud: “Is she so beautiful that anyone should want to rape her?”
It was difficult to say which was worse: the attack on the guesthouse by SP workers or their leader’s lewd sense of wit. But the lady of BJP has now plumbed deeper into the abyss of indecency by insulting both Mayawati and transgenders.
It’s easy to see that profanity in politics saw a huge growth in the US after Donald Trump stormed into the scene. In India, filthy language has surely seen a spike after the advent of NDA rule in 2014, but, despite the claims of some, this has more to do with the nation’s newly surcharged politics than Narendra Modi, whose language is nowhere near as coarse as Trump’s.
To say that Modi was the original progenitor of verbal thuggery is to deny the credit to Rajiv Gandhi for such gems as “Hum apne virodhiyon ko unki nani yaad dila denge" (which he said to his critics) or “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes” (which he said about the massacre of Sikhs after Indira Gandhi's assassination). His son Rahul (or his ghost-writer) dishes out tweet after tweet to target Modi in a language just as offensive, but cloaked in an insufferable sense of humour which the lovers of the dynasty, however, hail as the coming-of-age of the family’s heir.
We have had foul-mouthed verbal diarrhea of all kinds: Muslim-bashing by Hindutva goons, Hindu-baiting by Islamic fundamentalists and protagonists of fake secularism, one party abusing another and then personality-based character assassination. It’s tough to judge which kind is worse than the other, but India seems to excel in the political name-calling of the personal kind.
So, we had Modi call Sonia Gandhi a “Jersey cow” in 2004. And we had Arvind Kejriwal branding Modi as a “coward and a psychopath”. Then Mani Shankar Aiyar discovered Modi to be a “neech kism ka aadmi”. Lalu Prasad Yadav’s son Tej Pratap Yadav threatened to “skin” Modi. BJP minister “Sadhvi” Niranjan Jyoti asked a gathering to choose between “Ramzaadon (followers of Lord Ram)" and “haramzaadon (illegitimately born)". BJP MLA Heeralal Regar declared his intention to “strip” Sonia and Rahul and transport them to Italy. Indian leaders have turned character assassination into a fine art that gave metaphor an altogether new definition, making it their favourite (dis)figure(ment) of speech. And when bad-mouthing is considered to be superior politics, no party can resist it.
The true-feelings theory
It has been said by psychologists that, when sparingly used, razor-sharp language conveys a speaker’s “true feelings” and can work well to hammer home a point. But like razor, the more you use it, the blunter it gets. When what is legitimate strength of expression is stretched beyond acceptable limits, tongues — and hell — break loose. The true-feelings theory holds water when invectives are tossed at institutions instead of individuals.
Sonia Gandhi’s jibe of 'maut ka saudagar' in the 2007 Gujarat Assembly election campaign lacked the crassness of the eunuch remark and indeed seemed justified in her expression of what she thought of Modi, though it ended up as a political blunder. It polarised voters against Congress, which lost that election. But if she targeted BJP, calling it a party of 'maut ke saudagaron' instead of targeting the popular Modi individually, Congress might have got away with less damage. Her son refused to learn. Rahul’s childish 'khun ki dalali' (brokering in blood) wisecrack after the surgical strikes against Pakistan backfired badly on him.
Modi scores over his rivals even in bad-mouthing. He could get away with his “true feelings” when, during the 2017 Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections, he compared Congress to “termites”, and his remark didn’t get him into as much trouble as the merchant-of-death outburst did Sonia. But his critics hope that the prime minister’s fondness for the termites metaphor which he has used at least thrice so far would one day expose his true colours instead of true feelings.
EC warning to Amit Shah
During the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the Election Commission banned Amit Shah from holding rallies and making speeches in Uttar Pradesh after he said the poll was an opportunity to seek “revenge for the insult” inflicted during the Muzaffarnagar riots. Only after Shah promised not to use abusive language did the Election Commission lift the ban, with the rider that officials would constantly video-track his speeches. This wasn’t the first time that the Election Commission cracked down on abusive language.
With 2019 promising an even more bitterly fought election than 2014, it’s more than likely that verbal abuse may plumb depths not seen so far. Parties and leaders might do well to hold their tongues, but if they don’t, the Election Commission must do it for them. It must get tougher than it did in 2014 right from day one.
Author tweets @sprasadindia
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Updated Date: Jan 24, 2019 17:44:21 IST