Dhaka Courier

Of politicians and indiscreet language

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‘The people have spoken, the bastards.’

The words flowed from Dick Tuck, an American politician who lost an election in the American state of California in 1966. He was unable to demonstrate grace in defeat, unlike other politicians who have lost elections in the West. It was his heart which was getting the better of his head. He was, after all, human. Are we surprised?

We are here reminded of Edward Heath. The late British politician employed the word ‘rejoice’ three times when news came in of Margaret Thatcher’s fall from power. ‘Rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice!’ That was how he said it. Wickedness was in his tone, accompanied by a naughty smile.

The English language, in the hands of politicians, generally opens up a passage to the heights of oratorical charm. Then again, there are the times when it can reveal some of those dark instincts in men we thought did not exist. As the various layers of Watergate unfolded before him, Richard Nixon went before the media and told Americans, with not a blink in the eye, ‘I am not a crook’. That turned out to be the most damning understatement of his career, for only months later it was his proven crookedness which pushed him out of the White House. It was a kind of remark that would in later times be replicated, almost, by Bill Clinton. He wagged his finger, looked stern and told Americans he did not have sex ‘with that woman’ (read Monica Lewinsky here). Ah, but he did. For as long as people remember Nixon and Clinton, they will remember these two statements they made. These have become part of their history.

In his times, Joseph Stalin made sure that no one could so much as hint at opposition to him. He sent numerous comrades of his to the firing squad in what we today know as the purges. Stalin’s word was law, almost divine. But then there were those rare men, like Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito, who cared little for Stalin’s imprecations. The Soviet leader once told the world, pompously, that he would shake his little finger and Tito would be gone. Stalin died in 1953. Tito would live till 1980, as president of Yugoslavia. In China, Deng Xiao-ping’s theory of cats and mice landed him in huge trouble in Maoist times. It did not matter, proclaimed the diminutive Deng, whether a cat was black or white as long as it caught mice. Well, it did matter. For Mao, Deng was a capitalist roader. Such a man was to be punished. Deng paid the price.

In a way, Morarji Desai too paid a price for his indiscreet description, in Hindi, of the young Indira Gandhi as a chhokri (a mere slip of a girl) when in 1966 the Congress syndicate decided that Nehru’s daughter would succeed Lal Bahadur Shastri as prime minister. It would be a very long time before the cantankerous, urine-imbibing Desai would become prime minister, only to last a moment in historical time. Indira Gandhi was the target of other indecencies as well. Pakistan’s Yahya Khan, outmaneouvred by the Indian leader in 1971, warned ‘that woman’ against any precipitate action aimed at his country. It was of little use. Mrs. Gandhi saw to it that East Pakistan became Bangladesh and then, in magnanimity, stopped her army from destroying what remained of Pakistan in the west. Z.A. Bhutto needlessly denigrated Indira Gandhi at his public rallies through calling her ‘mai’, a pejorative term for ‘woman’.  In 1972, he went with folded palms to Simla, to negotiate a peace deal with the Indian leader.

There are public figures who will be remembered for the language they used at some point or another in their careers. Bhutto once told anyone who would listen that Pakistanis would eat grass but would have the atom bomb. Well, Pakistan has the bomb, per courtesy of the theft committed by A.Q. Khan. But its people still wallow in gross poverty. And eating grass is a difficult proposition. In Bangladesh, the country’s first military dictator Ziaur Rahman thought money was no problem as he went about directing ‘development work.’ He said he would make politics difficult. His party, in power, had its cronies make a lot of money. Out of power, it did not let parliament work. The Zia legacy?

Which reminds us of another legacy. Mohammad Ali Jinnah did all he could to dismember India, for Pakistan to take form. He succeeded. And then he told the Bengalis of his country that they had to speak Urdu. That was how he set Pakistan on the road to disintegration. Time was when Rajiv Gandhi thought Calcutta was falling apart. He called it a dying city. Well, Calcutta is now Kolkata. It thrives still.

Ah, well . . .

  • Of politicians and indiscreet language
  • Issue 49
  • Syed Badrul Ahsan
  • Vol 35
  • DhakaCourier

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