Modi’s Hindi is an excessively starched kurta

Palash Krishna Mehrotra | Updated on August 13, 2021

Word control: Modi wears his formal Hindi like an armour; it sheaths and protects him, puts distance between him and those around him   -  RITU RAJ KONWAR

The cliched but persuasive way in which politicians use language

* A reader might forget the openings of great novels but it’s difficult to forget the hot air that politicians spew

* Hindi is Modi’s frontstage language, the one he uses to communicate with bureaucrats and the public, but his backstage language is Gujarati

* Kejriwal has a more colloquial style, a localised Delhi Punjabi-Hindi, the language of his people


Words matter to writers. It’s the reason why even the most misanthropic writers cannot do without people. If one doesn’t listen, one cannot capture what is heard, so essential to the writer’s craft. It’s the one thing that the Indian novel in English cannot capture: The spoken word. I’m not saying this as a nativist criticising Indian writing in English, more as a stated limitation we accept and work with. Novels and stories are successful at capturing realities other than dialogue. For dialogue, I end up watching Hindi films and shows on OTT platforms. The story might be less than satisfying, the plot far-fetched, but the dialogue-writing is always on point. If the dialogue writer is trying to get the speech of a small-town in West UP, chances are that she will nail it to a T.

This sensitivity to the spoken word is new to Hindi commercial cinema. There was a time when all characters spoke in a standardised drawing room Hindi. There was a dramatic element to the dialogue. It had less to do with realism and more to do with effect. It was not until Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen that Indian audiences heard how a Chambal dacoit actually speaks. The gangster film then took over the baton. Gangsters finally spoke the way gangsters do, whether in UP or in Mumbai. It took a while for this to trickle down to movies featuring ordinary middle-class characters.

When I say that words matter to writers, I mean all kinds of writers: Writers of prose and poetry, lyric writers, screenwriters and advertising copywriters. But there is another profession, if one can call it that, a category of people to whom words are of paramount importance: Politicians.

What politicians say

Like authors, politicians are interested in the persuasive powers of language. Unlike authors, politicians use language in the most clichéd way possible. And yet, we remember what politicians say. Or at least snatches of it. A reader might forget the openings of great novels but it’s difficult to forget the hot air that politicians spew. In part this has to do with the assorted loudspeakers politicians have at their disposal, both while in power and posthumously. When you switch on the TV or radio, chances are that you won’t find James Joyce reading a passage from Ulysses but a politician blowing smoke rings made of words.

Remembering is a fragmentary process; there are so many snatches which remain stuck in my head, from Nehru’s ‘stroke of the midnight hour’ to Indira Gandhi’s khoon ka katra katra (every single drop of my blood). Another phrase that I remember from growing up in the 1980s was ekta aur akhandata or ‘unity and integrity’. Every politician used it. Not anymore. Two decades from now we might not remember much about today, but do what you might, you will not forget Donald Trump growling ‘fake noos’ and Narendra Modi saying mitron. We don’t have a choice in the matter; there is no erase button.

Not to say that politicians have not made great speeches; indeed there are anthologies that have compiled these. But these speeches are few and far between. As a Hindi speaker, I have noticed that on the surface there are similarities between authors and politicians. Some authors, like Jaishankar Prasad, prefer an ornate literary Hindi, others, like Vinod Kumar Shukla or Jyotsna Milan, a more colloquial idiom. The same holds true for politicians.

Much is made of Modi’s oratory skills. And Rahul Gandhi’s lack of it. Oratory though is different from the substance of what one is saying. While Modi’s Hindi is more fluent than Gandhi’s, Hindi is not the first language of either. Modi’s first language is Gujarati, while Gandhi’s first language is Hinglish that tilts more towards English, an idiom familiar to anyone in upper middle-class Delhi.

Scratch the surface and it is evident that Hindi is far from being Modi’s first language. It’s an acquired Hindi, carefully calibrated and self-consciously curated. It follows a set pattern. There is little scope here for the improvisational jazz of Miles Davis. The notes are more like that of marching music. The American sociologist Erving Goffman used a metaphor from theatre as a tool to understand society, the distinction between the ‘frontstage’ and the ‘backstage’: It’s the same individual but with two distinct personalities. Hindi is Modi’s frontstage language, the one he uses to communicate with bureaucrats and the public, but his backstage language is Gujarati, the one he uses to chat with Amit bhai behind closed doors, the language that comes to him most naturally. I reckon that if Modi chose to address us in Gujarati (and even if we heard it in translation), we might hear and encounter a more human, less robotic Modi. I say this because I grew up in the Hindi (cow) belt, but also in Vile Parle (West), a Gujarati suburb of Mumbai. I have a sense of both languages and their flow.

At the moment, Modi wears his formal Hindi like an armour. It sheaths and protects him, puts distance between him and those around him. It follows a set pattern, like on Mann Ki Baat; there is little spontaneity, which a native speaker of the language, say Atal Behari Vajpayee, has.

Prim and proper

To use another metaphor, Modi’s Hindi is an excessively starched kurta, while Gandhi’s is more like a creased and crumpled khadi kurta. Modi’s Hindi reminds me of those kunjis or Hindi guide books from which we mugged up in our schooldays. It’s that same artificial sanitised Hindi in which we wrote essays (nibandh) on mera priya tyohar (my favourite festival). Every Modi speech is a nibandh from a kunji. He is the headmaster who will cut marks if you use a single Urdu word in your essay in your paathshala. This why Modi’s shuddh Hindi and his speaking style lend themselves to parody. After Neeraj Chopra’s Olympic gold medal, Shyam Rangeela, a popular satirist, put out a two-minute video on social media that totally nails Modi.

Now compare Arvind Kejriwal’s Hindi (not the politics) with Modi’s Hindi. Kejriwal has a more colloquial style, a localised Delhi Punjabi-Hindi, the language of his people. He will say Aap ye kar ke dekh lo, instead of Aap ye kar ke dekh lijiye (pun on AAP unintended). Lalu Prasad’s speeches were colourful and dripping with wordplay. Even Baba Ramdev, though not a politician, has this direct way of speaking which doesn’t draw boundaries between him and his audience. I’ve heard him speak at close quarters. He has the gift of the gab and he speaks colloquial. Ramdev will talk about giants, jungles, dinosaurs and yoga all in the same breath, all the time peppering his speech with jokes. The politicians of Pakistan Punjab have always been attractive speech-makers in Urdu, but with a pronounced Punjabi accent. Imran Khan, when he was being sworn in as PM, stumbled over his words while taking the oath. The Urdu was too chaste. The joke in Pakistan was that they should have done a dry run and made him practice it.

Seen in this light, Modi’s Hindi is as acquired as Maggi Thatcher’s accent was, the fluency notwithstanding. One is so mesmerised by the phony diction, one forgets that nothing has been said in the process. American politicians have a different way of doing things. It’s not that American politicians don’t have a front, a frontstage manner of going about the political business. There is an Everyman style that is characteristic of American political oratory in general. In the way they speak, there is not much that distinguishes George W Bush from Barack Obama from Trump from Joe Biden. An instance of this was when an irritated Biden turned to Trump during the course of a televised presidential debate and said ‘Cmon, man!’ In India, we are so busy suffixing ‘ji’ to every sentence that we forget to frame the sentence itself.



Palash Krishna Mehrotra is the author of Eunuch Park and the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India

Published on August 13, 2021

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