On April 21, 1997, in his reply to a motion of confidence debate in the Lok Sabha, prime minister HD Deve Gowda expressed anguish over being called “nikamma” by then Congress president Sitaram Kesari.
Trying to excuse his party president, Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar downplayed it as an “act of solecism”. One isn’t sure how many bought that explanation. It was tough to do so – as a Hindi heartland native, Kesari could not cite an ignorance of Hindi semantics.
Twenty-five years later, an MP from the same party attempted the same line of defence.
After his controversial act of referring to Droupadi Murmu – India’s first tribal president who was recently sworn in – as a “rashtrapatni”, Congress MP Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury didn’t waste any time in taking the “not a native Hindi speaker” line. But the uproar in Parliament, and sharp political reactions from the governing Bharatiya Janata Party, show that Chowdhury’s choice of word, far from being limited to a verbal faux pas, will be mined as a Freudian slip.
In these times of the instant weaponisation of hot-button topics like identity politics, Chowdhury ended up pressing the wrong buttons. The mere fact that it was used to address someone holding the country’s highest constitutional office, and who is also a tribal and a woman, exposes him to a tripartite charge: assailing the prestige of a high office, resorting to a sexist insult, and denigrating the first tribal occupant of the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Chowdhury’s lack of grasp over the different connotations of “rashtrapatni”, and his apparent callousness about the gender-neutral nature of the actual constitutional nomenclature, gives him no shield against the outrage. In a combative, trigger-happy space replete with offences, the Congress MP’s reckless wordplay is too much of a political material to be left unassailed. He has tripped over identity redlines, a catch too visible to go without high-pitch backlash.
Chowdhury’s verbal excesses also came at the wrong time of year and at the right time to be amplified. Coinciding with Parliament in session, it was hard for it to escape the performative politics that has been the zeitgeist of legislative discussions in the era of parliament broadcasts and live-tweeting. That might partly explain why Smriti Irani – of late besieged with a lot of explaining to do over allegations against her family – did not let her sense of timing fail her. In some ways, the polemical fireworks that followed could be seen as a comeback act on Irani’s part, a demand placed by the fluid oneupmanship of optics-driven combat.
However, the immediate motives and powerplay should not make one lose sight of the shifts in vocabulary in political diatribes in the last few decades. In the past, an essentially apolitical high office like that of the president has not often been a target of interest for even opposition parties. The prime political target has always been the prime minister, the executive head of the government. But it wasn’t long ago that cautious use of words was common, even expected, while attacking the prime minister.
While the 1997 instance mentioned above gives us a glimpse of this, a news magazine report from the same period shows what would have been considered, at the time, an excess outrageous enough to shock. In the run-up to the 12th Lok Sabha poll, Sonia Gandhi had gone to the extent of calling Vajpayee a liar. This was in response to Vajpayee accusing the Rajiv Gandhi government (1984-89) of indulging in corruption. By pre-social media benchmarks of verbal diatribes, Sonia accusing a former minister of lying was considered a new low. A of India Today magazine said: “In Delhi, where she caused a flutter among sticklers for political norms by calling Atal Bihari Vajpayee a liar (Vajpayeeji ne sarasar jhooth bola hai).”
But over the last two decades, the verbal landscape of political duels has changed rapidly. We don’t know whether the news magazine that registered shock over Vajpayee being called a “liar” in 1998 was equally scandalised when Mani Shankar Aiyar used the “neech aadmi” jibe against an incumbent prime minister in 2017. It’s highly unlikely. Verbal niceties no longer find a place in high-voltage performance politics that have 24/7 audiences on social media platforms, with little to distinguish between a parliament speech and poll rally rhetoric.
At a time when politicians perhaps talk more than at any other point in the history of political communication, the popular incentives of verbal appeal are as widespread as the danger of backlash. A Congress MP discovered this in the most theatrical of ways in Parliament yesterday. A politician’s slip-up – ranging from an “act of solecism” to the highly assailable Freudian slip – could be another’s chance to push all the right buttons of identity politics messaging.
In a world offering an ever-widening turf of competitive victimhood, the idea of a harmless faux pas is a non-starter.