Humiliation and Hierarchy: The New Political Language
Let's hope there's no potato crisis in India
She hops off her chopper and steps on to the road, an officer scurries behind her, pulling out a white handkerchief, to wipe the dust off her shoes. Without this gesture, Mayawati would not have felt respected, and the officer would have fallen short of his duty, since cleaning the chief minister’s shoes must be part of his job description.
In a similar vein, there is good and there is evil for Somnath Bharti. The middle class moralities were truly shaken by the alleged drug and sex racket run by these foreign people. No one seemed to be coming to their aid till the knight with shining armour, Somnath, appeared one night on the Khirki extension to conduct a raid. To prove the legitimacy of his action he supposedly asked the suspects to urinate in public, because ‘honour’ and ‘dignity’ of course are the privilege of the privileged, and not of delinquent foreigners.
Mani Shankar Iyer takes a dig at the ‘chaiwallah’ because that’s just his idea of humour. Subramanium Swamy, does not cringe at all when he tweets ‘All the gay people should be captured and sent to Baba Ramdev’s Ashram to be cured’.
The common denominator in all of these instances is the fact that these are all premised on the idea of humiliation of a person, position, or a community which is dangerously gaining currency as a political tactic –‘showing them their place’. Social media offers a space for direct interaction with anyone and everyone, without attaching any responsibility, and yet occasionally and selectively also threatens with dire repercussions if one offends the wrong people. We find that sometimes the most demeaning statements are allowed to pass and the most harmless expressions end people in prisons. On the one hand, heightened sensitivities of the offended, have led to arrests, like in the case of a facebook status update by a student in Maharashtra against Bal Thackery. On the other hand we ignore actions of grave depravity by switching channels or ‘unfollowing’ a rowdy twitter account. But what if this account was the Chief Minister’s? Kejriwal’s re-tweet about the Moron and Murderer was in bad taste to say the least. Dadlani can say it, but Kejriwal cannot, it’s a blurred line but it exists. Given the fact that AAP too is a now a political force to reckon with, shall we say the choice just got wider with M for Mayhem?
What makes this phenomena of public insults particularly dangerous is the fact that this ‘humiliation’ is being utilised to reinforce hierarchies, social, political as well as racial. While expressing disagreement conveys a difference of opinions which could lead to alternative approaches, a gesture to humiliate only conveys vendetta. The political language today is no longer that of dialogue or a rebuttal or even defiance but rather that of insult. This makes the nature of campaign increasingly superfluous when the aim is always to define ones’ self against the ‘other’, rather than agendas being based in local concerns or policy orientation. The allegation of AAP being a subsidiary to the Congress party, by the BJP was perhaps most unnerving to the party, which continues to dismiss ‘experience’ in governance by all previous parties as experience of ‘corruption’. Beyond this, the party line on other policy issues has been missing if not misguided. ‘Secularism’ remains Congresses’ favourite agenda, even though the party barely cared to define the term in 1976, 42nd Amendment when the term was hurriedly added to the preamble of India; further, BJP’s pre-election political theatre around all disputed structures will continue to ensure that there is always a rationale for a party to define itself against the propagandists.
This ‘Not being the other’ rhetoric is also employed within political movements. Sadhvi Rithambhara’s speech throws the ultimate insult to the ‘Hindu’ men who were abstaining from participation in the demolition of the Babri Mazjid, when she asks “Haathon mein choodiyan pehen rakkhi hain kya?” (Are you wearing bangles in your arms?); in other words, ‘you won’t participate in this movement? What are you, a woman??’ This was not all, while women did perform their role in the mobilisation, their position within the movement was an inferior one. Women were reported to have been seen washing the feet of the kar-sevaks as they milled away after wrecking the structure. All hierarchies safely intact and stereotypes reinforced with gusto!
In the absence of clearly professed policy goals or agendas, almost all political parties begin to resemble social movements that celebrate a ‘way of life’ rather than a way of governance. Be it Kejriwal’s humble Wagon R or Advani’s Toyota Rath, the spectacle around these symbols begs for attention. Talking of symbols, one only hopes that 2000-something crore rupees worth of ‘unity’ being erected in Gujrat, has penetrated the mind of the builder just a little bit. In-keeping with the tradition of confusing wit with insult, Modi’s only response to the mention of the former party MP Kashiram Rana, was “Maans khane wale logon ka vyavhar alag hota hai” (People who eat non-veg have a different temperament/ behaviour).
If sweeping generalisations were not enough, we have also witnessed public outbursts of anger with claims to spit on senior members of parliament and lawyers. Now had this been an angry voter’s facebook status update of a tweet, we would let it pass as your freedom of expression, but this being said in a public speech by a man who holds public office is a whole other ball game, it reeks of decaying political ethics. Most unfortunate is the fact that we have started to find a supportive audience waiting to cheer for such statements. Kumar Vishwas’s ‘kaali-peeli’ comment was intended to make people laugh, because dark skin colour is someone’s idea of a good joke? What is even worse is the fact that in his full speech he goes on to express how pitiable ‘bechara’ the male species is, because ‘back then.. the nurses were from Kerala. Now they are north Indian.. bathed and washed, wearing blush and perfume..’ so after completely objectifying women of all colours and reducing the profession of nursing to the body of the women practising it, he has the cheek to conclude, ‘then what does a ‘bechara mard’ do, if his heart races when a female-nurse touches him to test his pulse?’ (To avoid being one of these dented and painted women who provoke Vishwas, do follow VHP’s guidelines on ‘How to be an honourable bharatiya nari’!).
But I must end on a note that I dare not call funny but definitely bewildering as this last example appears to be tailor-made to drive home the point about the sheer absurdity with which humiliation is employed as a political tactic. One really does not know what to make of it when Maharashtra Navnirman Sena is accused of being a ‘Keinchoo-un ki party’ (party of earthworms). However, there is one man who has perhaps mastered the art of making speeches, no insults only conviction when he says, ‘Jab tak desh mein aloo rahega, tab tak Bihar mein Lalu Rahega’.
Saumya Saxena is a PhD student at the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge.