Dr Subir Sinha: Narendra Modi and Political Language in Bihar

Modi lost Bihar for the language he used. The excess of language used by Modi made it possible for Nitish, Lalu and Rahul to pick from it, which they did brilliantly. Modi’s language lost him the election …

The 2014 election revealed Narendra Modi’s mastery of political language. Sarcasm or mockery, emotion or lofty ambition, hope or fear, Modi’s language was succinct, and immediately understandable. There were early gaffes, the ‘kutte ke pille’ statement for example. But then he upped his game. ‘Shahzada’ simultaneously damned dynasty as undemocratic, and invoked power as shared in a small family and its coterie. References to ‘damaad shree’ hinted at the corruption of the Gandhi family and to its foreign-ness. Modi’s ‘A for B for’ speech listed scams alphabetically to highlight the UPA’s endless corruption, as did his unreservedly crass comment on ‘50 karor ki girlfriend’. More positively, ‘India First’ and ‘Sabka saath sabka vikas’ became the rallying cries for a new constituency that formed behind him.

Where needed, ‘gulabi kranti’ was used. Modi’s language confirmed and generated emotions, hopes, fears and prejudices. ‘Kya bolta hai’, I heard people from who were not BJP voters, as they lined up at the booth to stamp their vote on the kamal chhaap, swayed by language. So why did Modi’s language, and of the BJP campaign as a whole, not cut much ice in Bihar? Unki daal kyun nahin gali, so to speak? Much water has flown under the bridge since Modi’s 2014 victory.  The language that once charmed and swayed, overused by Modi and his team, became stale. The language used by party spokespersons to defend indefensible acts and statements by their colleagues made them appear as arrogant and disconnected from the people as the UPA.

The same language that once mocked the mighty now became a medium available for appropriation by his opponents. The invective and innuendo that damned the UPA did not have the edge of the assassin’s blade when facing a different adversary. Modi and Shah used language in Bihar as if still campaigning in 2014. Shah’s references to ‘Rahul ka nanihal’ did not work in Bihar because Rahul was not an issue here. Nor did Modi’s ‘doob maro’ advice to the Congress work because the Congress already had hit rock bottom here ages ago.

The emptiness of terms such as ‘sabka saath sabka vikas’ and ‘India First’ had been belied by the outbreak of bovine murder conspiracies across the country, and the death-by-neglect of many popular social programs for the poor. The language of BJP ads in the final days revealed its deeply divisive strategy at odds with Modi’s lofty language. The falling rupee and rising food prices, once showing the UPA’s failure, now stood as stats that indicted Modi’s performance. His ‘jungle raj’ charge against Lalu was comfortably batted away by citing Home Ministry stats, as Nitish did, that showed Bihar’s performance on law and order as considerably better than BJP-run states. ‘Har har Modi’ easily became ‘Arhar Modi’. Modi and the BJP’s past language became yardsticks by which their performance and their suitability were evaluated by the electorate.

The excess of language used by Modi made it possible for Nitish, Lalu and Rahul to pick from it, which they did brilliantly. The Mahagathbandhan listened closely the language of BJP leaders and used effectively for their counter-campaign. When Amit Shah used the word ‘jumla’ to explain why black money allegedly lodged in foreign banks by UPA-connected account holders had not returned as promised by Modi in 2014, it was given new life by Nitish and his team, with ‘Jumla babu’ and ‘Jumleshwar’ introduced in social media conversations. Connecting Modi to ‘Jumla’ negated his one distinct advantage over his opponents: his oratorical skills, which, described as ‘jumla’, suggested trickery and insincerity, not to be taken seriously.

Compared to his battery of words, the Mahagathbandan’s own language deployment was mild and minimal, but effective. Initially, ‘Mahagathbandan’ seemed too grandiose for what was an uneasy and tense compact, with the principals careful to be seen to keep a critical distance from each other. It was able to overcome its caste contradictions by converting Modi’s slur on Nitish’s DNA as a negative comment on all Biharis. This prior language game then made it possible for the Mahagathbandan to launch the subsequent word play on ‘Bihari-bahari’.

Modi’s hammering of migration of Biharis for work elsewhere mocked a major source of income, the remittances from family members, that sustains so many households in rural Bihar. His comment on ‘3 idiots’ was now channeled back as castigating the very electorate he courted. Shah’s comment on firecrackers in Pakistan to celebrate the BJP’s possible defeat, now seems prescient, but was read as mocking Biharis’ right to vote freely. Modi’s attempt to recover this ground via his ‘B for Brilliant…’ full form of BIHAR was too late and frankly a little embarrassing. His increasingly uncontrolled language, including attacks on national icons in choreographed events abroad, were seen as attacking the dignity of the office he held and, because he was seen as a master of political language, indicated his weakness and failure to read Bihar.

In 2014 Modi’s language was effective because it aroused a wide constituency, at the core of which was Modi’s aspirational ‘neo middle class’. But as the parsing of the vote showed, his appeal was lowest among the rural poor. Bihar has a concentration of the rural poor, many of them ‘maha-pichada’. Modi’s language was not recalibrated for this audience. Here, Rahul’s worn-out joke on the ‘suit-boot ki sarkar’ and his remarks on ‘amir aur garib’ still had traction. Here, Modi’s jibe at Nitish about his computer being infected by the ‘Lalu virus’ gained the BJP far fewer votes than it lost on account of Mohan Bhagwat’s suggestion for a ‘punarvichar’ on reservations. The words of V.K. Singh on Dalit killings in Haryana, or his party members the killing of alleged beef eaters, cow smugglers and rationalists and had echoes in Bihar, which his silence – his lack of language – only encouraged.

Modi’s language did not create a coherent narrative acceptable to Biharis, or accept ‘the BJP’ solely as embodied by him, rather than local leaders and candidates. His big linguistic weapon, the lampooning of corruption under the UPA did not work as Nitish’s image is clean, while the BJP’s has been besmirched by Vyapam, Lalit Gate and Chikki Gate. Modi’s language lost him the election as it seemed as if he was addressing another electorate in another place at another time, rather than Bihar today.

Republished with permission and thanks. The writer teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Twitter: @PoMogandhi. Email: subirwa@hotmail.com


Filed under Bihar, BJP, Discussion, India, Pakistan Horizon

2 responses to “Dr Subir Sinha: Narendra Modi and Political Language in Bihar

  1. Pingback: Dr Subir Sinha: Why Development Defines India’s Elections Today | Pakistan Horizon

  2. Pingback: Dr Subir Sinha: ‘London and Us’ | Pakistan Horizon

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