Societies across the globe indicate respect for others through forms of language. In India, these customs are particularly rich. Pronouns like 'aap' as well as common endings of verbs such as 'aaiye', 'baithiye', 'suniye' (come, sit, listen) in Hindi and other Indian languages all convey especial deference. Indeed, this is a culture where 'ji', deriving from the Sanskrit 'sri' which denotes divinity, is routinely added to people's names to signal that everyone is worthy of the highest honour.
I want to ask where these great traditions of courtesy have gone in our political life today. Recall, if you will, our freedom movement. There was a wide spectrum of opinions then about how exactly independence was to be achieved, just as there are bitter conflicts now among our current politicians about the directions in which India should go. Tagore and Gandhi, for instance, disagreed on the definition of key concepts like nationalism and argued publicly and vehemently about the interpretation of events like the great Bihar earthquake of 1934. Subhas Chandra Bose's views could not be said to be exactly consonant with Jawaharlal Nehru's - and so on. Yet, each of these political personalities had a unique honorific associated with them in the public mind. Laden with symbolism, these epithets remain highly emotive. Let me begin by drawing attention to a dozen such:
Mahatma Gandhi, the Great Soul
Kavi Guru Rabindranath Tagore, the Wise Poet
Babasaheb Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Gentlemanly Protector
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Authoritative Leader
Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Respected by the People
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the Scholar
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Liberated Individual
Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Honoured Leader
Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das, Friend of the Nation
Deenabandhu C.F. Andrews, Friend of the Poor
Shahid Bhagat Singh, Martyr
Veer Savarkar, Brave One
Sarojini Naidu, the Nightingale of India
It is true that my translations of these honorific adjectives into English are woefully inadequate, and the list I've presented far from complete. For example, leaders from the South are not mentioned though they contributed immensely to the freedom struggle. Also obvious is the fact that men are far more prominent than women in this list - which may tell us something about the long reign of patriarchy in our country.
Nevertheless, despite these lacunae, the general point holds. School children across India will unfailingly recognize these honour-tags as part of the legendary associations of freedom itself, of 'swaraj'. Where is that vision of swaraj now? Fossilised in text-books? Gone with the wind?
It is not a question of the absolute 'truth' of those long-ago nationalist labels. There are no doubt ample reasons for in-depth critiques of each of them by historians. What is worth noting, however, is that not only were these appellations coined, but that they have robustly held sway over public memory for over a century. Then, we had a great soul, a poet and a martyr and even a 'nightingale' as part of the political imagination.
Well, the present seems to be the age of the caricature. 'Pappu' and 'Feku' are the best we can manage. I do not want to come down too heavily on the side of political correctness here. A nation that cannot take irreverence in its stride cannot, I believe, come to terms with real reverence either.
My point is simply that Sarojini Naidu, the Nightingale of India, who unabashedly wrote her wonderful, passionate poetry in the language of the colonizer, was able to make merciless fun of the Mahatma, calling him a Mickey Mouse and commenting that it cost more to send him around the country in his Third Class railway carriage than in First Class. No one at the time - or now - seemed to assess these as mean, below-the-belt hits. Least of all the Mahatma.
All of this sophisticated understanding of plural perspectives, of cross-cultural learning, of tolerance of other's points of view even under the colonial yoke, back then was arguably so for at least two reasons: first, because it appears there was a great deal of mutual respect and trust between public figures - and in them. These politicians were not too eager, it seems, to jump to conclusions about bad faith, nor to accuse each other of corrupt practices moment to moment. The people, in their turn, seemed to respect the honorifics bestowed on their leaders. Second, there was a vision animating both people and leaders: this was the vision of Indian independence.
Today, that solid edifice of mutual respect amongst our politicians seems eroded. Trust is at a very low ebb. If we have common goals, they are lost in shrill cacophony. Vision has given way to division, with even 'idealistic' parties like AAP split right down the middle in a very short time after being voted in with an impressive majority. It is as if we have quite lost our ability to listen respectfully to each other owing to far too much sensory overload.
Twitter and troll environments in our times just do not seem to permit those 'honourable' political discourses of the past, only revengeful themes and fast, vicious responses. Maybe it is the 24X7 media mill, maybe it is the machinery of the markets, maybe it is that politics is all screen-spectacle these days. Whatever the reasons, pettiness rather than wit seems to prevail in our present political discourse.
Or perhaps it's just that our times are incapable of imagining the 'heroic' except through the magic intervention of Bollywood. However, this is a conclusion that I am loathe to endorse. My view is that India is a dynamic country with a very young population which deserves truthful as well as entertaining accounts of the challenges facing us. We may have come a long way from the times of the freedom movement, but India still needs freedom from dire poverty, illiteracy, gender abuse, caste factionalism, regional prejudice. In these times of social 'churn', I therefore think our politicians still have a crucial lesson to learn from our past: they must respect each other - and us, the aam janta - just a wee bit more.
At the moment, our politicians are outdoing themselves trying to disgrace their peers. What's needed from them is the exact opposite - grace and generosity. If a more coherent vision of the future of India fifty years down the line emerges from this exercise, that would be great. But if not, our political leaders should at least do us the honour of telling us the truth.
And speaking of telling the truth, I must confess I have been trying hard to think of honorifics we might wish to confer on our current leaders. It hasn't been easy. Can anyone help out, ji?
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