Elections always throw up inventive rhetoric, catchy one-liners, barbs, and taunts. These are amplified even more when social media rule the roost among the young and trendy in particular. Nonetheless, it is disheartening that in a country that otherwise takes pride in its rich traditions, great love for poetry and elevating metaphors in almost every regional language, in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha election the campaign styles of the two major political players at the national level have largely smacked of clichéd and stereotyped labels. A certain style of leadership that has been projected well in advance since last year has shaped the poll discourse as well. It may well have begun with the seemingly innocuous puppy-under-the-wheel remark by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, to convey his expression of pain over the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat. But as he lent more lung power to a style of speech that was laced with ostensibly tell-all words such as ‘Shahzada’ (prince), in referring to Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, ‘Matashree’ in addressing Congress president Sonia Gandhi, the ‘Recounting Minister from Tamil Nadu’, alluding to P. Chidambaram, and coined terms like ‘burqa [veil] of secularism’, liberal sections were only hoping that the political Rubicon would not be crossed.
But the power of campaign rhetoric is such that it triggered a counter-discourse virtually across the political spectrum. While the ‘tea boy’ allusion to Mr. Modi by some Congress leaders in a pejorative reference to his humble beginnings in life boomeranged on the party leading the UPA, the caustic and at times vitriolic references to Mr. Modi by some Congress functionaries like Imran Masood in Uttar Pradesh made people wonder whether the Congress too was falling for the aggressive, no-holds-barred mode of speech. In this battle of wits, Rahul Gandhi himself was forced to condemn the likes of Mr. Masood, while Mr. Chidambaram sought to pay Mr. Modi back in his own coin, by asking whether the latter could not be termed “Encounter Minister”. All these to some extent go to show how much of the campaign style has been shaped by images and themes more associated with an ‘icon’ rather than flowing from political programmes and policies. True, there has been quite a bit of talk about the ‘Gujarat development model’ going all-India, beef exports being highly subsidised, poverty being a ‘mental state’, and so on; these speech-acts only remind us of the Oxford linguistics philosopher J.L. Austin’s great work, How to Do Things With Words. It was everybody’s expectation that the leaders would put words to better, more positive use in this poll campaign.