Right after Narendra Modi announced an extension all the way to May 3 to India's lockdown, Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi attacked the speech as "Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark". It was an oblique reference to the Shakespearean play, twice removed, through an idiom used by native English speakers. It refers to a performance where the main character is missing - in this case, a proper economic package. This was followed by former Finance Minister P Chidambaram's tweet which despaired that the PM gave nothing to the poor. "Cry, my beloved country," he wrote, paraphrasing the South African writer Alan Paton's 1948 novel, Cry, The Beloved Country. The Congress party's responses with their allusions to high literature, known to a miniscule minority of Indians, was in stark contrast to PM Modi's invocation of the 'traditional' notions of tyag and tapasya. This is not just a linguistic distinction. It is at the centre of the language of politics in India. And to tell its story, I will take a detour into a snatch of autobiography.
When I was but a child, my father tried to get me interested in High Culture. He would act out snatches of Shakespeare, explaining the significance of the two "put out the lights" in Othello's soliloquy. Sometimes, late at night, he would play Ustad Amir Khan singing Darbari Kanada (which bored me stiff) or, more often, a scratched record of Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan playing Dhun Palas Kafi (which I still love). He tried to imbue in me an appreciation of good films and literature, sometimes combining the two, like when he would read out Eisenstein's note on Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, or Ray's description of a passage from Kalidasa. Indeed, my father taught me how to understand the sandhi structure in Sanskrit plays, one of which, a passage from Kumar Sambhava, stays with me till this day.
Now, my father was a trade unionist. He led Delhi University teachers in a historic strike in 1971 which brought the then powerful Indira Gandhi government to its knees. Along with being a college teacher, he was a political worker who organised an assembly election campaign in Haryana's Bhattu Kalan in 1977 against the formidable Devi Lal. Even though Devi Lal won the election with nearly two-thirds of the votes, my father's candidate made a historic dent, winning most of the remaining one-third. This was, perhaps, the first time a Left candidate had polled so many votes in an election in Haryana.
I suspect this experience of spending several months in a jat village in Haryana had a profound impact on my father's use of everyday language. Very early in my life, he exposed us to what he called the 'language of the people' - filled with popular idioms, everyday imagery, and peppered with colourful obscenities and expletives. This is how people speak, he would say, and the only way to speak to them is to understand and internalize this everyday language of the street. Of course, this made my father stand out as an eccentric, a traitor to his own class.
In fact, India's elite has always found it difficult to 'speak to the people', even in Indian languages. In Bengali, there is a distinction made between high or shadhu bhasha and colloquial or cholti bhasha. This has also been mirrored in two layers of politics in the country - the elite politician, often at the centre, who speaks English or a refined version of their mother tongue, and the more earthy leaders, often in the states, who speak a demotic vernacular. Shashi Tharoor and Lalu Yadav perfectly represent the two ends of this spectrum.
This division intensified in the mid-80s when the fluid and contingent caste alliances the Congress party had arranged began to disintegrate into more organised caste parties. As politics began to get 'vernacularised', the Congress, which was still dominated by English-speaking politicians, began to face an erosion in its footprint, especially in the Hindi belt. Several states eschewed English and moved to the dominant local language as the principal medium for official communication. In West Bengal, the Left Front government switched to Bengali as the primary medium of instruction in schools. The Congress leadership realised this, but didn't have any answer. This is probably one reason why Rajiv Gandhi tried to engage with his audience when he said "Hum apne virodhiyon ko unki nani yaad dila denge." It cost him many a middle-class well-wisher.
At one time, MPs put on their best English, peppered with erudition, during parliamentary debates. Nehru's speeches were delivered in such beautifully crafted English that one parliamentarian quipped that India's first PM was a "minor poet who has lost his vocation." Over the past two decades, such high English has disappeared from the political space. Ironically, it found refuge in television studios starting the late-90s. An entire genre of TV politicians emerged, many of them lawyers whose profession it is to speak well, who entered our living rooms through our televisions, and made us have opinions. Although a large number of these leaders were from India's traditional elite party, the Congress, the BJP too had its fair share. P Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal, Arun Jaitley, Arun Shourie, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Ravi Shankar Prasad, P Kumaramangalam might have been on different sides of the political divide, but they spoke the same language, used the same turn of phrase, when they represented their parties in TV studios.
Narendra Modi's emergence has turned this world upside down. Where someone like Rahul Gandhi is forced to display his janeu, Modi is seen to naturally belong to the 'vernacular' world. He speaks English with a heavy accent, and India's dispossessed elite react with public disdain when he makes mistakes. Popular Hindi language idioms come naturally to him; he does not need to put on a mask to speak to the Hindi belt. His language is not just about words, it is also about the conceptual space that give those words their meaning. Coming back to his latest speech, the ideas he uses of tyag, tapasya, anushaasan, ghar, parivaar, can never be accurately translated in English. They belong to a different cultural space, which a majority of Indians inhabit.
This is a great political advantage that Modi has over his opponents. While there are state leaders who have a similar linguistic-cultural connect with their people, Modi is the only one who has acquired a pan-national stature. When Congress leaders attack him by parading their knowledge of English literature, they only strengthen Mr. Modi. After all, he represents various heterogenous groups of Indians who have a chip-on-the-shoulder about the 40-year-rule of India's supercilious, English-speaking elite.
(Aunindyo Chakravarty was Senior Managing Editor of NDTV's Hindi and Business news channels.)
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