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Reliable measure

The reason for the southern states remaining unaffected by Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan ideology is that the deep psychological drives for those states need triggers in their own languages

G.N. Devy Published 22.05.24, 06:58 AM

Sourced by the Telegraph.

Election times are marked by high-decibel propaganda and the athletic throw of words. Come elections, politicians and parties, otherwise silent on many issues, suddenly come into form and display their entire language repertoire to attract the attention of voters. Elections are a theatre in which logic, history, economics and data sciences are made to take the back benches while absurd sound bites, cacophony, false promises, bravado, posturing, lies and slander are given the front seats. If Holi is the festival of colours, elections are a festival of empty sounds. In democracies, politicians, the media, analysts, bloggers, strategists, crowds, psephologists — practically everyone — vie with one another to make the festival as noisy as they can. Slogans clash with counter-slogans, words clash with words, becoming, as Shakespeare put it, “airy nothings”. But even amidst this din, occasionally, an eloquent phrase or metaphor appears, like a firefly in a forest of darkness, and lights up the space around. Rarely, but surely, some words or phrases manage to bring out the mood of the people and the social dynamics so pointedly that they stay in memory for long.

Such words or phrases cannot be coined by campaign designers or propaganda managers. They come up suddenly from ordinary speeches and occupy the centre stage of the people’s imagination. I have always been interested in watching elections in order to understand what language does to politics. This is an enterprise which has nothing to do with psephology. Psephos — pebbles in Greek — lies at the root of the word, psephology. It seems that the Greeks used to drop pebbles in different pots to express their approval or solidarity with contestants in an election. Later, in the Italian language, the ‘pot’ in which pebbles were dropped came to be called ‘ballot’, the ballot box of our times.


Perhaps the most eloquent and evocative word to surface in the 2024 parliamentary elections in India has come from a Gujarat-based journalist, Ajay Umat. Even as everyone is trying to guess the outcome of the first five rounds of these protracted elections held in a scorching summer, this journalist, who runs a digital news channel, predicted that “panho ochho padse”. Translated into English, the phrase means ‘the cloth’s width will turn out to be inadequate’; in other words, ‘there will be a hung Parliament with the ruling party facing an awkward shortfall in numbers.’ This view is by now widely accepted among journalists, analysts, voters and the contestants themselves. But Umat’s ingenuity does not lie in his estimation. That is already a commonplace inference. It lies in his choice of the metaphor. Older generations of women and men who have used tailor-stitched clothes — which is still the practice in rural India — know that no tailor will accept to stitch a shirt or a blouse if the width of the cloth is not adequate. Indeed, if he were to do so, the clothing — and the subsequent shrinkage — won’t save the user from shame. In India’s cultural history, textile-related metaphors have engaged the people’s imagination in many different ages. Kabir’s life and poetry revolved around it. Mahatma Gandhi’s politics and ethics drew profound significance from the charkha and yarn-making. Umat’s use of this simple metaphor in colloquial Gujarati brings home the possibility of the fiasco confronting a political party that has woven aggression, machismo and pride into every word it utters.

Words, when they emanate from real life, have a wonderful ability to light up difficult truths. We all know by now how the term, ‘godi media’, coined by Ravish Kumar, has exposed the paid media and the propaganda machinery of the regime. Also, one may recall how the slogan and song, ‘Khela Hobe’, lent to the last assembly elections in West Bengal the theme of courage versus suppression. Political analysts rarely take into account the use of colloquial registers of the people’s mother tongues as a parameter for election analysis. But there is something else to say about home languages in Indian politics. Perhaps the most important reason for the southern states remaining relatively unaffected by the Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan ideology is that the deep psychological drives for those states need triggers in their own languages. If, indeed, ‘the cloth will be shorter than required’ is the likely outcome, ‘guarantee’ — an English word meaning “a form of transaction in which one person, to obtain some trust, confidence or credit for another, engages to be answerable for them” — would have failed to appeal to the voters’ unconscious mind.

If there is anything that is the most irrational in life, it is the act of making a choice. One may try to provide a rational explanation to a choice made after it is made; but the process of making it is guided by deep-seated unconscious drives and desires, which the conscious mind can never fathom. For instance, there are millions of devotees of Rama; but when the regime describes the episode of sanctifying a Rama idol as “a civilisational moment”, the description leaves most of these millions cold. One reason is that the term, ‘civilisation’, has no exact equivalent in any of India’s major languages. Synonyms, such as ‘sanskriti’ or ‘sabhyata’, have other connotations that make them somewhat far-fetched. Thus, the politics around the Ram mandir, which was expected to be a high-capacity, vote-fetching machine, has not brought the expected euphoria.

Indian voters get swayed if the political discourse emerges out of the every­dayness of their own languages. It is a fact of history that Indian society has responded most enthusiastically to linguistic ingenuity. The language of the Buddha and the Upanishads, the vachanas of Basaveshwar, Kabir’s dohas, Mira’s bhajans and Tukaram’s abhangas in the past and Gandhiji’s easy-to-understand ideals, such as ahimsa, asahakar and satyagraha, during the freedom struggle stand testimony to this simple principle. The use of Persian terms like ‘shehzada’ or ‘naqli’ or English terms like ‘guarantee’ and ‘stability’ leaves a large part of India cold. As a student of languages, I can echo Ajay Umat on the discourse of the 2024 elections and say ‘panho ochho chhe’—the cloth is shrunk.

G.N. Devy is Chief Editor, The People’s Linguistic Survey of India

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