"What will India do if the Pakistani army goes for first strike?" a reporter in Bombay had asked Sharad Pawar soon after he became Union defence minister in 1991.
"Let them go on strike. How much does that matter?" replied the Maratha strongman who had just been beaten by PV Narasimha Rao in the race to the prime minister's office. Many critics had then written about Pawar's unsuitability for the job because he could not speak English or Hindi too well at the time.
Of course, over the years, Pawar has caught up with most of the English-speaking politicians in India to whom the language might still be alien -- though the same cannot be said of his nephew, Ajit, who recently announced that he would speak only to Marathi TV channels while in Maharashtra and other channels will have to translate. He was followed by Maharashtra Navnirman Sena president Raj Thackeray who, after a recent interview in Hindi to an English channel, stated that that had been an exception and not a precedent.
Now both decisions, I believe, were a virtue born out of necessity. For, neither Ajit nor Raj (as was obvious from that interview) are strong with Hindi and might either miss the nuances or end up expressing themselves erroneously. Like Maharashtra's home minister RR Patil did in his infamous reaction to 26/11, "Aise chote-mote haadse bade bade shehron mein hote rahte hain." All that Patil had meant was that a metropolis like Bombay should expect terrorist attacks, big or small. But, given that he was educated in Marathi and knew very little Hindi -- and even less English -- it came out all wrong.
Even Raj and his cousin Uddhav (though the latter is good with his Hindi) were educated in the Marathi medium as was Ajit who, in any case, has no occasion to speak to the media outside Maharashtra, for even as a deputy chief minister he rarely steps out of the state or even goes to New Delhi. On the rare occasion that he does, I have noticed, he leaves the sound bytes to the chief minister or some senior officer - a wise decision after the Patil goof-up cost the man both his job (for a while) and his credibility.
However, Union home minister Sushilkumar Shinde suffers no such handicap - he was a court officer before he became a politician and has never had any difficulty speaking English or even Hindi during his long years as a minister in Maharashtra and now at the Centre. Of course, he has an irrepressible sense of humour and a tendency to make light of burdensome situations in life. In this, he was always the twin of the late Vilasrao Deshmukh who had his own brand of tongue-in-cheek humour and an ever-smiling countenance even during most difficult situations of public life and political leadership.
Nevertheless, it might not be quite appropriate to say in public (as Vilasrao discovered on occasion) what one might get away with in private, even though one might be speaking in one's mother tongue. For one, it might often be misinterpreted. For another, much can be genuinely lost in translation. Like once happened with Sharad Pawar in 2004 when he was asked, before the counting of votes at the Lok Sabha elections, about his ambition to be PM. Pawar stated, quite clearly, that his was a small party that could only offer support to a larger one in case of a hung House and that, under such circumstances, the question of becoming PM, even presuming he wanted to, was redundant. The channels reported him as saying he wanted to be PM but could not get the support of other parties. Pawar had smoke coming out of his ears and soon after, I noticed, he stopped giving sound bytes, except when otherwise motivated.
Shinde, though, has now tied himself up in knots over his ill-advised statement that 'Coalgate' will soon be forgotten as was Bofors and the NDA's petrol pump scams. He was speaking in his mother tongue and it was light-hearted banter, as is his wont. But he clearly did not choose his words carefully. The media, not surprisingly, has pounced upon those words with glee.
While politics is not a business without humour, Shinde, whose evergreen smile slipped somewhat after the controversy, is discovering the hard way that the joke, sometimes, could be on the politician.