Sense and Sensibilities in India’s Political Discourse


Faheem Haider


Discourse is speech or conversation somewhat off the mark, away from the central tenets or arguments of the area being discussed. Political discourse, understood from this perspective, is what is being said about and not the fundamentals of governance or principles of political philosophy. Political discourse, therefore, is as related and at the same time as much unrelated to the course of political actions as is a publisher’s catalogue to the published books. Discourse in its various forms is an advert, an addendum, an address, and not the thing, action or thought itself.

Normally, when foundational political values change, a similar shift takes place in the discourse related to them. A classic example can be drawn by comparing some of the Vedic texts with texts from a later era, both produced under different political contexts. Two references drawn from two different periods of ancient India are indicative of how political philosophy has evolved.

The political context for this formulation, during the closing centuries of the second millennium BCE, was provided by a setting in which neither were the lives of a population fully in the grip of a feudal state, nor were human-land relations governed entirely by ideas of ownership.

A thousand years later, the Manusmriti, compiled under a different political backdrop and has since then been India’s gravest stumbling block in creating a humane and equitable social order, states: "Whatever exists in the world is the property of the Brahmana, on account of the excellence of his origin, the Brahmana is, indeed, entitled to all."


The political context for this formulation was the tussle between Buddhism and Brahminism. D.D. Kosambi, probably the most perceptive commentator of social strife in ancient India, discusses at length how 'the middle path' propounded by Buddhism was different from the life of the forest dwelling hunter-gathers of the time and the more settled society following “yagna” (rituals of offering). This inevitably brought the 'middle path' in clash with the established class of priests and merchants and, eventually, receded into the background, even as it spread outside India without much use of force and violence.

Surprisingly, the key phrases in the verse from the Ishovasya Upanishad and the one from Manusmriti have a remarkable linguistic closeness. Just as the former uses the phrases ‘yat kin chit' (not even a small bit) and 'jagatyam jagat', the latter uses 'yat kin chit' and 'jagatigatam' (pass your life in this world). These two phrases occur in both texts; and one need not think of this as a mere coincidence. Not just that, the design of Manusmriti rests on the use of the Anushtubh poetic meter, the most preferred by some of the major Upanishads. It is interesting to note that the other major texts of the period such as Bharat’s Natyashastra and Gautama’s Dharmasutra had moved to a mix of prose and verse. Manusmriti kept close to the traditional style and meter. In one of its dictums (verse 4.124), it states that the Yajur Veda was meant for use by humans, while the Rig Veda was for the gods. The affinity ends when we come to the ideas promoted through the Manusmriti. The closeness of vocabulary cannot be seen as merely incidental but needs to be read as a deliberate subversion of the original. The Manusmriti is full of such undermining of the noble ideas in the Upanishads that had historically preceded it. The linguistic affinities helped this smriti in claiming authority among the followers of the Vedic rituals. Nonetheless, they provide foundations for two diametrically opposed political philosophies: the aspiration for equity versus the justification of hierarchical superiority. Here, the political philosophies had changed, the related discourse had changed; but their linguistic expressions had not.

It is also quite possible that although the principles of politics show no significant shift from one era to another, the political discourses of given two eras are significantly different. A good example of this can be seen in the long history of feudal kingdoms in India (or elsewhere). The political discourse about the feudal system during the 12th century and the 16th century shows a major shift as exemplified, for instance, by Kalhana's Rajatarangini (1184 AD) and Al Badouni's Tarikh-i-Badayuni (1595 AD). At first sight, the intents of Kalhana and Badouni look very much alike and so do the structures of their works.

A settled terminology used for discussing politics gives way to a different one due to several factors such as changes in labour practices, emergence of new technologies, economic shifts and population migrations, which are all intimately linked with politics but cannot be described as politics. In other words, political discourse acquires new forms not only when a new power system emerges but also without such a power-shift having taken place: when the language in which the discourse circulates undergoes a significant style-shift.

The current political discourse, thus, throws up a surfeit of iconoclastic attacks on ideas and ideals held dear by Indian people over the past decades. It also has a high voltage sarcasm and a special like for Orwellian euphemisms. In George Orwell’s famous work 1984, for instance, "the Ministry of Truth is the Ministry whose duty it is to propagate lies that is to say, to alter history from time to time as may be convenient to the masters of the Party”. Politicians in India appear to have far surpassed Orwell’s skills in this department.

In order to cement the cracks developing in this 'feel good' blitz, the news of the PM being received with an overwhelming welcome by countries outside India, or his receiving various international awards, images of his mystifying meditation visit to caves in the Himalayas, were doled out. If one raised any doubt about the material conditions of the country, the techies double over as trolls and do a carpet bombing of abusive messages. The discourse has indeed gone high tech and fast speed. In the process, it has made political realities and economic facts the least important part of what is being talked about.

Labour, production, distribution, rights, entitlements, justice and such other terms once central to the political discourse are no more necessary as the discourse moves from the real world to the virtual world. The Ministry of Truth is all about 'positivity' in the minds of citizens. Anything less, or anything else stands the risk of being jeered at or simply being described as 'sedition'. The sedition law has become suppler than ever before.

The study of Mass Psychology may explain aggressive verbal behavior as part of a strategy of appealing to the baser elements in the ego-field for creating a new brand of politics. Historians may place this political discourse in the category of vandalized public morality. Linguistics has a different take on this matter. It investigates and assesses viability of the discourse. Language, whatever else it may be, is a social system. Once new meanings get associated with some already existing expressions, they no longer admit the monopoly of their first users. This means more and more members of the political class will use them, more and more frequently. Contempt and hatred offer to their first users a sense of self-proclaimed moral superiority, albeit a false sense. When they are used by all, such words besmirch the terrain ethical.

The trajectory of India's political discourse from that point till today can be captured by re-reading side by side the two verses, respectively, from the Isa Upanishad and the Manusmriti. Mahatma Gandhi stated in his discourse on the Isa Upanishad that that particular verse reflects the very best in India’s history. It is for us to decide if the present regime has not reserved its best compliments for the verse from Manusmriti, which in a contemporary application, justifies and entrenches new and avoidable hierarchies in today’s socio-political context.