‘Slam’, headed by ‘grand’ is drawn from the healthy universe of sport. Tennis, baseball, golf have their grand slams. And if there is an energetic equestrian grand slam, that is the one used for a successful completion of the US’s 250 km Four Deserts races. We also have grand slams in the very sedentary sports of chess and bridge.
Today’s Indian media, however, uses ‘slam’ in an altogether different arena. Its ‘slam’ are verbal punches administered by political rivals.
As I write this, four headlines stand tall in front of my eyes: ‘Karat slams UPA over corruption’, ‘Mayawati slams Congress over minority reservation’, ‘Akhilesh slams Mayawati over UP crime’, ‘Rahul slams Mayawati for misusing central funds’. These headlines, conjuring a wind-blown image of grand-slamming tennis players in a mixed doubles match, are all from one morning’s headlines. Over a week, I could easily find a dozen ‘slams’. Those using ‘slam’ in headlines want to convey a hard-hitting, direct volley, directed at an identified adversary. And there is a clear suggestion in ‘slam’ as in ‘flay’, of a kind of slaughter-by-word.
All the four leaders mentioned in the slamming stories I have cited, are serious battlers, capable of serious verbal ballistics. But one can say with confidence that the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) will slam, cerebrally, devastatingly but cannot, will not slander, that the general secretary of the Indian National Congress will slam and slam hard but will not slaughter propriety, that the young president of the UP unit of the Samajwadi Party will not let slamming end up in verbal sullage, and that the seniority and high position of the chief minister of UP presupposes and brings with it a measure of verbal responsibility.
But — great exceptions apart — junior workers, volunteers and supporters of senior or powerful leaders who come from varied experiences and conditionings choose their own verbal voltage. They are guided by the heat and dust of the moment, by the compulsions of survival, as also by the false notion that their audiences, especially rural audiences, are so ‘rough’ as to weary of ‘refined’ speeches. They will slam ‘any old how’.
Tough-talking, as distinct from rough-talking, has long been the stuff of democratic contestation. A Shankar cartoon could have captured grand slams of his time with Nehru, his cap flying (but rose-bud intact) galloping away on a thoroughbred stallion followed by a scowling Kripalani on an exhausted steed. In his active days, RK Laxman would have shown a triumphant Indira Gandhi, eyebrows arched, winning all 13 tricks in a contract bridge slam, with Nijalingappa and Morarji Desai opposite her looking bewildered, and young Siddhartha Shankar Ray, on her side, pleased as punch.
But slams and slamming today are made by different energies. The debasement began, I would say, with the Emergency of 1975-77 when free speech was gagged. Its celebrated return was turgid. Not all ‘victims’ of the Emergency exercised Jayaprakash Narayan’s restraint of speech and civility of political conduct. Raj Narain scaled new heights in un-restraint.
Today’s slams at the operational level of political rallies and nukkads have reached a new low. No cartoonist would like to portray in lines of delicious humour what has become so tasteless. The decline has deepened and spread to all parties. This is not because hates are deep or rages are high but, more often than not, because insecurities are huge. Insecurity over what defeat might spell for their future in politics, in power, in preferment. If venom is spewed at the adversary, the syrup of flattery is served to the hero on the stage — all in the same cause — survival and self-advancement.
Who or what suffers ? Democracy does, governance does, we do.
The culture of slamming politics (which includes ‘slap-happy’ exhortations) has an even more deleterious and, in fact, dangerous implication — by default.
When you slam in order to please your leader, your flock, or your support bases in the electorate, you are being smart, not honest. You are saying things that will please, not correct. ‘We, the people’ also need correctives, guidance, urgings to be more effective with our rights and more responsible with our obligations. We need to hear and to know that corrupt politicians, some of them making money in unimaginable crores must be punished. But we also need to be asked ‘who corrupts them ?’ Yes, arrogant bureaucrats are a pain, but who ji-huzurs them? Yes, our roads are wrecks, our traffic insane but who mutilates these public spaces and regulations? Yes, the uniformed man in the Jarawa forest is a disgrace, but who were the voyeurs for whose gratification he gave his orders? Yes, our Wild Life Protection Act, our Forest Protection Act, Animal Welfare Act are under-enforced but who violates them? Yes, we face serious parching with our water-tables sinking, our rivers panting as a result of overdrawal but are bulk users of water doing a jot to alter consumption, manufacturing patterns?
The need for slamming is the greatest in yet another sphere of our life.
There is a band of smirking middlemen — bichaulias, contractors, dalals and brokers — that facilitates corporate, official and political corruption. These stay well below the line of today’s ires and fires. Nameless, faceless and fearless, they operate under cover of darkness as well as in broad daylight. They are safe, oh so safe. Why? Because, like Emerson’s ‘Brahma’, they are everywhere and everything, far, and near, shadow and sunlight, keeping their subtle ways, passing and turning again, knowing they reckon ill who leave them out, for they are the wings, they the fuel and they, indeed, the compass. And ‘one to them are shame or fame’.
They get no slamming, or almost none.
Politicians will slam their foes, but who will slam India’s civilisational foes, her ecological monsters, the mulcters and abductors of her natural resources? Vivekananda, Gandhi and Ambedkar slammed what needed slamming, be it in leader or in the led. Is their method now, dead?
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personal