Ritual of political rhetoric


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ELECTIONS in India are times to exercise the power of rhetoric by political parties and their leaders. Over the years rhetoric, ‘an art of persuasion and reasoning’ as Aristotle defined it, has become a legitimate political practice. Political campaigns in India since the early seventies have been visibly dominated by uses of rhetorical language and discourse that try to establish an electoral communicative order. In their quest for exercising communicative power within the political system, the competing political representatives of political parties engage intensely in manufacturing forms of language to identify and share the worldview of the electorate.

However, there is an implicit meaning-system working within this communicative order as manifested in the use of rhetorical language. Though such a language falls short of being an ideological sign-system (Voloshinov/Bakhtin), it nevertheless establishes the signifier-signified relationship (Saussure) within this kind of a use. An important question is, how do we understand the making of political rhetoric in a given society, and what are the modalities of its structuration and articulation in a linguistically diverse society such as India? Can we discern a logical coherence and structure in the uses of political rhetoric? Is rhetoric simply a strategic use of a language? Is there a reciprocal relationship between political rhetoric and its social reproduction? What are the domains and sites of political rhetoric?

In his Treatise on Rhetoric, Aristotle sets up the relationship between rhetoric and logic on three main counts – that both are founded on the natural faculty of individuals, that both use ‘opposite inferences’, and both are indifferent to truth and falsehood though they must choose either of them.1 It is important to see how rhetoric becomes a particular form of language or what Paul Corcoran calls a ‘public discourse’ and ‘public resource’. Corcoran further argues that the term language as a political phenomenon has to be understood in terms of art, creativity and method.2

Aristotle, in his views, makes a distinction between political rhetoric and general rhetoric, the former derived from political authority and status. Making the distinction between pre-literate and literate societies in the use of language, Corcoran states (that) ‘in pre-literate societies, language – the word – is itself magic whereas in early literate societies, a technique of articulating conflict develops that recognizes the speakers’ own composition of speech… rhetoric is created by the skilful, that is, by a literate user of language.’3



A brief analysis of the elections 2004 with regard to the language of rhetoric used, and the historical lineages of political rhetoric in India since the first general elections in 1952, can help us understand it as a ‘form of art and literature.’4 More than earlier elections, the 2004 elections witnessed the intrusive impact of technological intervention in mechanically reproducing the art of political rhetoric in the domains of audio-video, cyber, print and telecommunication. Technology moved rhetoric beyond an art of persuasion, and invoked multiple voices and images of praise and ridicule affecting the formation of electoral political discourse and its power.

Whether it was the question of indigenous national identity of language and land against Naveen Patnaik (Oriya), Omar Abdullah (Kashmiri) and Sonia Gandhi (Hindi and Hindustan), their political bete noire continued to engage in the political mud slinging in this election.5 Laloo Prasad Yadav, chief of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and known for his wit and crass humour, asked the RJD supporters at an election meeting in Chapra, ‘Lathi utthavan, tel pilaavan, Bhaajpa bhaghaavan’ (Take your lathis, oil them well and chase the BJP out).

Laloo Yadav, a magician with language, inventing unusual expressions in his native tongue Bihari, has certainly foregrounded rhetorical language in Indian politics as never before. For example, take two slogans illustrating the role of money, muscle and political power coined and circulated by the RJD in Barh constituency of Bihar, ‘Bahubali ko crore, dal badloo ko lakh, janata ko mila khaak, yehi hai sukhad ahsas’ (Crore to the muscle-man, lakh to defector, nothing for people, this is the happy ending) or ‘Yahan nakad Narayan se takkar hai, ek Birla aur ek fakir hai, note dijiye aur vote bhi dijiye’ (referring to JD (U) candidate Nitish Kumar rolling in wealth like a Birla but the RJD candidate being a poor man (fakir), so give your votes as well as notes).



Calling names has been an all-time favourite game of Indian politicians. Look at just a few of such expressions. Pramod Mahajan dubbed NCP (Nationalist Congress Party) leader Sharad Pawar the ‘Elizabeth Taylor of Indian politics’ for his frequent alliances with the Congress Party, Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray dubbed Congress a ‘party of eunuchs’, and Pawar compared Thackeray to an ‘emaciated tiger’. Mayawati of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Laloo Yadav of RJD have deployed the language of ridicule and shame in criticizing upper caste dominance, c.f. well-rhymed expressions such as Mayawati’s slogans of ‘Tilak, tarazu aur talwar, inko maro joote char’ or ‘Brahman, bania, thakur chor, baki sab hain DS4’ (The three upper castes are thieves and should be kicked away).6



In a socially fragmented society, political parties thrive and survive through their constituencies that have the potential to influence the winability of their candidates. The language used by political contestants needs to capture voters’ imagination. When Mahendra Singh Tikait, the Bhartiya Kisan Union leader, quipped and said, ‘(I)t is the gur (jaggery) fail, not feel good’ (for sugarcane growers have not been paid their dues) it was welcomed as an appropriate counter to the ‘feel good factor’. In this election the Congress party replaced its old slogan of ‘garibi hatao’ (remove poverty) by ‘aam admi bachao’ (save the common man).

A number of slogans used by the Congress party in this election were aimed at development ‘Congress ka haath aam nagrik ke saath’ (Congress’ hand, common man’s hand), the dynastic contribution of Indira and Rajiv ‘Unke kaam aur balidaan, hamari disha, desh ka maan’ (their work and sacrifice, our vision, country’s pride) or ‘Rajiv dikhenge tumko Rahul ko jab dekhoge, tumhe Indira nazar ayegi, Priyanka ko jab dekhoge’ (when you see Rahul, you will see Rajiv in him, and in Priyanka, you will see Indira). These messages intimately relate and bond the agenda of development and the dynastic rule of the Nehru-Gandhi family. Slogans of this kind can possibly nourish voter support for the Congress partly as an inevitable historical predicament whereby the past, present and future of the country’s development and the Congress party are symbiotically bound together.

Memories of national leaders can easily ignite passion and compassion from potential supporters for the party concerned. The short and prompt pronouncements like ‘Desh ki aandhi, Sonia Gandhi’, ‘Akshay Atal, vote kamal’, ‘Haath ka panja’, or ‘Vote Atal, vote kamal’, were widely used throughout the country as instant energizers for their respective parties.7



Political contestation has conventionally been over party symbols and their potential usability. In a multi-party democracy where a substantial number of voters are illiterate, party symbols are important signifiers that need to have a certain degree of popularity and acceptability among the voters who are consistently wooed by the political parties to cast their votes in favour of a party symbol. The initial selection of poll symbol of a party may have been arbitrary and without any rational criterion; it is subsequently invested with values and norms of the respective parties concerned. Narratives are produced to valorize these symbols and their social values. Party symbols, numerous in regionally fragmented multi-party elections in India, whether the hammer and sickle for the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM), a cycle for Samajwadi Party (SP), an elephant for BSP, the hand for Congress and lotus for Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) – are used as codes and signs for poll slogans and speeches by their party contestants.



In one of his speeches, Pramod Mahajan justified his party’s poll symbol over that of the Bahujan Samaj Party (elephant) and Samajwadi Party (cycle) poll symbols in the following manner: ‘Lakshmi haathi per baith kar nahi aati, Lakshmi cycle per baith kar nahi aati, Lakshmi aati hai to kamal ke phool per baith kar hi aati hai’ (Lakshmi – the goddess of wealth – does not come riding the elephant or on cycle, but if she comes she comes riding on the lotus). Similarly, the Samajwadi Party’s rally in Delhi in March 1996 elections eulogized its own poll symbol over its competing partners in the following manner, ‘Chalegi cycle, uregi dhool, na rahega panja, na rahega phool’ (when the cycle moves, dust will fly, there will be no hand and no flower left).

One can possibly classify the language of rhetoric into denotative and connotative. The former employs signs and symbols of various kinds while the latter uses explicit words, actual ideas and thoughts. Barthes considers the ‘verbal communicative event’ on both counts, and includes in the former parole, stylistics, modes of expression (how it is said) whereas the latter includes langue, codes, messages, substance and formal linguistic expressions (what is said).

It is not possible here to go in detail over numerous poll slogans and speeches used by different political parties in different parts of India since the first elections. That would require a long and intensive study into the structure and practice of electoral campaigns and their forms. In this essay, I confine myself to a few select cases to illustrate the relationship between political rhetoric and democratic order in Indian politics. The first three general elections of 1952, 1957 and 1962 were low on political sloganeering. For the electorate, it was the period of re-affirming faith in the Congress party and its ideology of democracy and socialism.



The 1971 elections conducted after the Bangladesh liberation war returned the Congress party with a substantial majority under a powerful and all time favourite slogan of ‘garibi hatao’ by Indira Gandhi. The emergency era was a subject of poll slogans for all non-Congress parties. Jai Prakash Narayan’s statement of ‘Daro mat, main abhi zinda hoon’ (don’t be afraid, I am still alive) had an electrifying effect on the voters. In the 1980 elections the Congress used the slogan ‘Indira ke haath mazboot karo’, ‘Indira Gandhi lao, desh bachaao’ (strengthen Indira’s hands, Bring Indira Gandhi, save the country) urging voters to return Indira Gandhi to power after the Janata Party’s unsuccessful tenure at the centre. A more memorable slogan circulated during Indira Gandhi’s by-election from Chikmagloor was, ‘Ek sherni, sau langoor, Chikmagloor, Chikmagloor (one lioness, hundred monkeys, Chikmagloor’). In the 1984 elections, following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the Congress used the memory of Indira to gain support from voters under the powerful slogan of ‘Jab tak suraj chand rahega, Indira tera naam rahega’ (as long as there is the sun and moon, Indira’s name will remain). Congress won a landslide victory and ruled for the next five years. The BJP fought the 1989 elections under the militant slogan of ‘Hum saugandh Ram ki khate hain, mandir wahin banayege’ (we swear by Ram that we would build temple there only). In 1989 the Congress came up with the twin slogans of panchayati raj and India’s entry into the 21st century.



The art of rhetoric was most evocatively used in the 1996 elections with coalition politics and political parties of varied interests and ideologies participating in the electoral process. The dominant parties – Congress, BJP, SP and BSP – used a number of poll slogans to enthuse the voters. We can see an interesting nexus unfolding between/among code, message, context, contact, receiver and referent within these multiple poll slogans.8 The BJP’s use of ‘Bari, bari, sab ki bari, ab ki bari, Atal Bihari’ in an election rally in Lucknow in March 1996 or Laloo Yadav’s predicament of Bihar captured under the much used slogan of ‘Jab tak samose me aloo hai, tab tak Bihar me Laloo hai’ were indicative of the power of rhetorical-electoral language in this election.9

The mandal-mandir question had haunted all parties in this election. The BSP gave the slogan of ‘Vote se lenge PM/CM, arakshan se lenge SP/DM’ (we will win PM/CM with vote, SP/DM with reservation) indicating the emerging power of dalit votes. Similarly, Narasimha Rao’s rally in Rae Bareilly on 20 March 1996 had a remarkable slogan, ‘Jat par na pat par, mohar lagegi haath par.’



The rhetorical domains and sites of location are many, and more were sighted upon during the campaign. Why is it that during the elections, rallies and rath yatras become part of Indian political culture? Do these marches use a set of codes that create a space apart from the one used in public meetings addressed by the political leaders? Political graffiti, slogans and speeches are constant reminders of political power and contest between competing political parties. This art of rhetoric and its political uses has interesting performative personae in the audio-visual world of television and radio, printed world of pamphlets, magazines, newspapers and verbal universe of slogans and speeches. N.T. Rama Rao while using ‘chaitanya ratham’ (the chariot of awakening) for election campaigns along with the song ‘Maa Telugu thalliki malle poodanda’ (a garland of jasmine flowers for Mother Telugu) had a lasting effect on people.

Laloo Yadav’s ‘garib march’ in 1996 accompanied by musical instruments of bands and drums had a banner with the slogan ‘Bahaar ho, barsaat ho, garmi ho ya thanda, Lal Kile par 15 August 1996 ko Laloo fahrayega jhanda’ (whether it is air or rain, hot or cold, Laloo will hoist the flag at Red Fort on 15 August 1996). Rajiv Gandhi’s ‘sadbhavna yatra’ (good-feeling rally) in 1991, Narasimha Rao’s ‘sanklap rally’ (promise meet) at the Red Fort on 24 March 1996 and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s ‘Vishwakarma rally’ in Lucknow on 24 March 1996 were not simply meant to be a show of strength by particular political parties and their leaders, but also sites for political sloganeering and contestations. Advani’s numerous rath yatras – Ram rath yatra (Ram chariot rally) of 1990, su-raj yatra (good rule rally) of 1996 and Bharat uday yatra (India rising rally) of 2004 had a fair use of aggressive language for purposes of electoral arithmetic.



As Michael Shapiro suggests, ‘Rhetorical practices recur and they are often times adapted to newer needs and even emulated to some extent and gradually become conventionalized as part of the democratic electoral behaviour and norm.’10 We need to pay serious attention to the language of rhetoric in a democratic political order. Rhetoric provides a language of paradoxes and opposites and has enabled the vernacular political elites of India to create a communicative public sphere as part of the political space. A leader succeeds in his rhetoric (as in case of Laloo Yadav) when s/he has the capacity to rhetoricize the given situation successfully. Rhetoric allows them to move from more universal idioms of the polity to a more local and particular one. It pays rich dividends in a society where linguistic loyalties are excessively sectarian and divisive, and the new genre of vernacular political elites can draw their linguistic skills from their specific language resources. Rhetoric as a form of intense oralisation and vocalization of linguistic resources has coincided with increased importance of information technology in recent decades. But can rhetoric be the language of masses?



Considering rhetoric as the poetics of Indian politics, I include not simply political speeches but the genre of linguistic codes, messages, signs and symbols used in the electoral spheres for purposes of electioneering. Poetics, in my analysis, is not just literalness but a ‘well formulated expression’ (Jacobson) alluding to metaphorical semantic of words and sentences in a language. It can also take different forms whether of humour, irony and satire. It could be overtly explicit or opaque in meaning.

Rhetoric helps collapse the multiple and distinct meanings of varied political concepts and ideologies under more common and shared referents. It is more than a simple speech activity; it is contextual, a strategy for mass mobilization, and a popular medium. Rhetoric is more pronounced and aggressively pursued in oral societies, and can be used for purposes of dramatization of polity with the massification of the sign-system. It looks for symbols and uses them for identity politics, the latter played around the categories of caste, class, religion, region, language, race, ethnicity and so on.

In all democratic polities the dramatization of facts is best conveyed through this ritualistic exercise of rhetoric in its varied forms. Rhetoric, unlike logic and reasoning, can be deployed without a critical engagement with themes of developmentalism and remain confined to mere aggregation of facts arbitrarily strung together. Despite this, it can present extraordinary facts and provide symbols of a democratic polity, setting up the relationship between word and world.



Is it our contention that mature and tolerant democracies have more mature and tolerant uses of language? Is refusal to believe in rhetoric a sign of maturity among the electorate? For example, the ridicule and dismissal of ‘India Shinning’ and ‘feel good factor’ by the electorate in 2004 elections proves that simple rhetoric does not always work. The important question, however, is whether and how politics through the discursive uses of rhetoric can be an art of persuasion, and what could be the possible challenges faced by such a politics? Does rhetoric as a vocabulary of politics have any direct relationship with the actual political outcome or behaviour? The analysis of rhetoric and its uses tells us about the political sociology of Indian elections, and can perhaps allude to the possibilities of forging communicative bonds between voters and their political leaders.

Aristotle considered rhetoric, like logic, to be universally applicable only if it was affected through the relationship between speaker, listner and the subject in three different forms of orations – deliberative, judicial and demonstrative. I would like to suggest that it is important to understand and see how political discourse and political rhetoric are mutually reproducible.



1. Paul E. Corcoran, Political Language and Rhetoric (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979).

2. Corcoran, Ibid, p. 6.

3. Corcoran, Ibid, p. 44.

4. Ronald Barthes considers rhetoric as a work of art and literature. Barthes’s analysis of rhetoric moves it beyond an art of persuasion to a form of language. He dwells upon the Russian formalist Jakobson’s linguistic analysis, distinguishing six factors that together account for the making of rhetoric – receiver, context, referent, contact, code and the message itself. For Jakobson, there is both a structural and functional aspect of a language when or not it becomes literary. Ronald Barthes, ‘Literature as Rhetoric’ in Elizabeth and Tom Burns (ed), Sociology of Literature and Drama (London: Penguin, 1973).

5. Congress and BJP, the two dominant parties in this election, produced numerous audio-visual videos and cassettes prepared by professional singers. Popular Hindi songs were recast, plagarized and sung by a band of singers for both parties. Whether it was BJP dhool ka phool by Congress or Phool khil gaya by BJP, the prominent party leaders of both parties were subject to ridicule and praise in these cassettes. The song Mahashakti Bharat, Shaktishali Bhajapa, eulogizes Vajpayee as the parthasarathi (the charioteer) of development to usher India in ram rajya to eradicate poverty. In all, twelve songs were recorded in this music cassette and about one lakh cassettes and CDs were distributed to tea stalls and paan vendors across the country. Kumar Sanu, who joined the BJP, sang, ‘Atalji do dekha to aisa laga’, an adaptation of his popular song from the film 1942: A Love Story. Congress reused video-cassettes recording old popular patriotic songs like ‘Kar chalaen hum fida jan-otan sathiyo’ and ‘Ae mere vatan ke logon, zara aankh mein bhar lo paani’.

6. American politics has been characterized by negative advertisements. Mud slinging in American elections is an established practice and considered somewhat related to the voter’s right to information about the contestant’s personal life and character. Something close to it was attempted in the surrogate advertisements in the 2004 elections before the intervention of the Supreme Court of India. As Harish Khare rightly asks, ‘What impact does such negative surrogate advertisements have on the manners of the political class?’ and suggests that the ‘surrogate ads’ are produced by passionate partisans who see a life and death struggle in each election contest.’ The Hindu, 2 April 2004.

7. Laloo Chalisa narrating the virtues of Laloo Yadav in the 1996 elections and the Atal Charit for Atal Bihari Vajpayee for 2004 elections are a few such instances.

8. Russian formalist Jakobson’s writings take into account these six factors to elucidate the poetic forms of a linguistic analysis to probe the question of ‘what makes a verbal communication a work of art?’ Ronald Barthes, ‘Literature as Rhetoric’ in Elizabeth and Tom Burns (ed), Sociology of Literature and Drama (Penguin, 1973).

9. Both Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party coined and circulated a large number of poll slogans to communicate the significant shift in the power of dalit and backward votes. Kanshi Ram and Mayawati while addressing the Pasi sammelan at Kashishwar Intermediate College in Mohanlalganj on 18 March 1996 coined the much popular slogans of, ‘Tilak, taraju or talwar, inko maro jute chaar’ and ‘Vote hamara, naam tumahara, nahi chlega, nahi chalega’ – the two most quoted slogans during this election. The Congress slogans emphasized the values of secularism, democracy and patriotism. A few of them were: ‘Congress ko lana hai, desh ko bachana hai’ or ‘jati dharma ke jhagre choro, Congress se nata jodo’, ‘koi jaat, koi biradar, Congress me sabhi barabar’, ‘bahut ho chuka khel tamasha, Congress hai jan jan ki asha’, ‘Congress ki niti hai, hum sabse preet hai’, or ‘pragati path apnayenge, Congress ko layenge’.

10. Michael J. Shapiro, ‘Literary Production as a Politicizing Practice’ in Herbert W. Simons and A.A. Aghazarian (eds), Form, Genre and the Study of Political Discourse (University of South Carolina Press, 1986).