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Mainstream, Vol XLVII No 19, April 25, 2009

Language and Politics

Sunday 26 April 2009, by Sharad Rajimwale


Why is it that as the date of polling gets closer, the politicians’ tongues tend to break all bonds of decency within which they have long been tutored to remain? It is indeed disturbing for us to witness all this day in and day out. To say that ‘it is disturbing’ may perhaps not convey the full extent of those responses which arise deep within every common Indian and overpower his or her senses. It is even possible that no word in the language is capable enough to express our emotions which result from the political din that gets shriller and more libertine with each passing day making one feel that freedom of speech is a wonderful component of our national life, but this is rather too much!

Language has been defined and described from many angles—but the most capacious and interesting definition presents it as a ‘social event’. In this avatar its illimitable potential and functional adjustability are revealed most incontrovertibly. One has only to turn back and glance across those centuries of regularly recurring political turmoil when the states’ lot was constantly felt to be threatened and international boundaries kept changing at a steady pace. We possess records of only recent times to indicate the quality of exchanges that took place between rivals, but it can be understood with a fair degree of assurance that in the era of Julius Caesar and Petronius, Havelock the Dane and William the Conqueror, words were viewed as next only to weapons of war in demolishing the settled positions and felling with surety the acknowledged authorities. It is also possible for us to envision to what extent the combatants would go in elevating or debasing the language in hot pursuit of the adversary, for in that exercise is also involved the acts of demeaning or elevating one’s own social position, dignity and respect. One reads the speeches of Abraham Lincoln and is amazed at the care and finesse with which words are used; similarly reading the Wartime speeches delivered in extraordinary conditions in the British Parliament is more than reading speeches, it constitutes lessons in learning English. Dadabhai Naoroji’s debates in London on the conditions of India under the blighting British rule will remain, one feels assured, preserved forever as shining examples of how politicians can actively contribute in transforming language into a more capable medium of expression. Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Gopal Krishna Gokhale never viewed the social, cultural and broader national issues in the same light; their continuing battles embodied
the eternal antagonism between two camps of thought.

Today’s youth, exposed to Varun Gandhi’s flaming words dripping cinders of communal hatred, and the dithering, flustering mutterings of the sulking Samajwadis pleading for the destruction of computers along with the English language, may well wonder why Lokmanya Tilak and Guruji Gokhale didn’t fly at one another’s throats screaming gutter-snipe abuses. Filth has become such an indispensable part of common parlance, whether in public or private meetings, that TV event inventors and cinema producers feel that without a generous dose of those words (regularly covered by ‘beep, beep’ sounds) their very existence is threatened! How could Tilak and Gokhale, if they felt it impossible to agree, or Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi, who diverged diametrically in their outlooks, look noble and humble not only in their meetings but also in pointing out the weaknesses and deficiencies of other’s standpoints? Their debates added greater beauty and power of expression to the language they used. We still treasure them for our own improvement.


Language reflects the organised or anarchic state of the user’s mind as also the painful truth that like arrows and darts, once delivered, words are beyond recall without causing damage to one’s position. It is the most facilitating and enabling Voice when one has to ‘say’ something, that is, present before the hopefully listening masses the complete alternative agenda of measures to be taken. Then one takes care about the selection of words, phrases, expletives and finer aspects of stylistic markers, and so on, using language at the same time as a bridge to reach and relate with the masses.

Common people respond to such coherent and sane calls in a positive manner to follow the light that emanates from such speeches. That’s how Gandhi, Ho Ch Minh and Lenin won masses to their side showing light in the surrounding darkness, as Pandit Nehru remarked in one of his speeches soon after independence and partition.

But, conversely, if one doesn’t have anything to say, being woefully bereft of ideas and talents even of the mediocre order to formulate the plans for a future society, then one makes it a habit to glare at the opponents, talk only of ‘their’ sins and use up all verbal charge in vilifying campaigns. One’s political behaviour tends to dissolve into acts of picking holes in other’s armour and at the end of the day the nation is still without clue as to what the speaker is going to do if voted to power.

This is precisely what we are witnessing today all over the country. The case is far more complex than what it has been allowed to look like here. The paranoia-driven anxiety, the intolerant rantings, the miserable public exhibition of utter want of understanding of social issues, the ill-concealed lust for money and power, the least sense of decency and grace—all this shows like dirty linen spilling out of rickety cupboards. The devil’s factory gets busy coining ever-new abusive expressions, and if talent for that is also wanting, dragging the readymade expressions from the nearest gutter, which leaves little room for respect for the listeners. The real target in such scenarios is the audience that has been looking for role models and true ideals and has remained frustrated.

Amidst all this, language remains paralysed, having suffered murderous assaults at the hands of political hell-raisers. The audience, searching for some coherent points, is expected to enjoy this live-wire spurt of tirades! For example, when someone calls a party ‘budhiya’ (old woman) he or she forgets that by using that word the very dignity of the old woman’s ripe years is being mocked at and shamed. No civilised society’s culture deems an old person in the light in which our aged politicians have recently portrayed her. The message slowly seeps into the precocious generation that looks for role-models. Similarly with ‘gudiya’ (doll) which was brandished as a counter-attack. Such a lovely word exuding all tender feelings of innocence and celestial simplicity was at one stroke stripped before all of its lovely connotations.

These are then our present-day politicians and such are the dreadful methods of their ‘linguistic engineering’. Declining sense of language, one can say, is a true measure of the declining political culture of a country.

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