Political commentators routinely place the adjective ‘polarising’ in front of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s name, but no one uses it for Congress president Rahul Gandhi.
The prefix ‘polarising’ fits Rahul Gandhi just as much.
The word ‘polarise’, according to the dictionary, means something or someone who splits or divides people into two opposing factions. Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi are textbook examples of this adjective because they both evoke extreme love and revulsion. You mention their name in front of a group of people and you will, most likely, part the room into two passionate camps – fawning supporters and angry detractors.
The polarisation index
Let’s see how the two leaders measure on the polarisation index. Rahul Gandhi’s supporters talk about how he has upped his political game in recent years, how he is active on Twitter, is a better orator now, how he delivered victories in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, and how he is essentially a decent man who wants to preserve pluralism in India. But his critics will bitterly attack the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty as the epitome of privilegentsia. They talk about Congress governments’ corruption scams, Robert Vadra’s rise, the lost decade (2004 to 2014) that Rahul Gandhi wasted in dithering and his multiple soft launches.
While Modi’s supporters talk about his clean image, strong leadership, strident Hindutva, surgical strikes and oratory, his opponents point to his Hindu fundamentalist politics, economic and foreign policy mishaps and the 2002 Gujarat riots.
But both of them have participated in the political theatre of the absurd. And some of their acts have been deeply polarising.
For instance, when Rahul Gandhi tore up the ordinance papers in 2013, or said that Congress leaders were not involved in the 1984 riots; or when Modi spoke about ‘shamshaan vs kabristan’ in 2017, or recently joked about people with dyslexia.
I too have used the prefix ‘polarising’ for Narendra Modi when I was with The Washington Post. In 2013, a reader posted a comment asking me why I used that word for such a popular leader. I began to write a reply to the reader, but found that my explanations could have suited Rahul Gandhi, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal too.
The traditional understanding of the word polarising in the Indian commentariat is that it describes Right-wing politicians and the divisive nature of their politics. Now, some readers, especially the Congress voters, will accuse me of perpetuating a false equivalence between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi. They would like to see Rahul Gandhi as a ‘secular’ unifier and Narendra Modi as a Right-wing divider.
But outside India, ‘polarising’ is used as an ideology-neutral term for both the Right and the Left. And, curiously, even for the Centrists, of late.
When former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez died in 2013, both The New York Times and The Washington Post used the word ‘polarising’ in the headline for their obituaries.
“Mr. Chavez left Venezuela deeply polarized, his supporters lionizing him as a courageous rebel determined to take on the elites, and his foes painting him as a dangerous demagogue and strongman,” The Post said.
Of course, Brazil’s current far-Right president Jair Bolsonaro, US President Donald Trump and French Right-wing politician Marine Le Pen are routinely called polarising.
The international media goes a step further. Can politicians who situate themselves in what was once called the “extreme centre” be labelled “polarising”? You can’t get a leader more Centrist than French President Emmanuel Macron. In fact, when he campaigned two years ago, the phrase ‘radical centrism’ was used to describe his muscular-middle politics.
A Gallup poll in 2015 called both Barack Obama and George Bush as the two “most polarizing” US presidents. Even Hillary Clinton was called a polarising politician.
But in India, even the extreme Left voices are rarely called ‘polarising’. This is because the liberal and Left intelligentsia, who were the unchecked gatekeepers of language for the longest time, put the word in the Right-wing box.
The ‘unfortunate vogue’
All politics begins with language, and is embedded in its biases. Author Malcolm Coxall wrote in his 2013 book Human Manipulation that language is not a neutral conduit, but impressions and concepts that are stored in the ‘information bins’ of our memory. “Playing games with language and laying linguistic traps are popular pastimes of politicians and politically motivated media outlets,” the book said.
A 2015 The New York Times article about Hillary Clinton being called ‘polarising’ discussed the word and how it became an ‘unfortunate vogue’.
“People often use “polarizing” as a place holder for words like “inflammatory” or “strongly disliked”,” it said. “Reporters love the word because it allows them to sound noncommittal and nonjudgmental. It offers them neutrality, limp and passive though it may be. In saying that someone is polarizing, they are saying, “There is division, but we won’t tell you whether or not it matters”.”
Political columnist Charles Krauthammer first coined the term Bush Derangement Syndrome for George Bush-haters in 2003. It was “the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency – nay – the very existence of George W. Bush.”
That brilliant coinage has now been newly re-minted as the Trump Derangement Syndrome. Perhaps it is time to import it to India for the two polarising leaders Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi. There are too many voters who have been so immobilised by their Rahul and Modi derangement syndromes that they now resort to using the euphemism of the TINA factor.
As Rahul Gandhi’s NYAY and Narendra Modi’s PM-Kisan battle it out in the crucial 2019 elections, Indian liberals’ hold over language and ideas will also be severely tested. The Indian commentariat needs to shed its bias and acknowledge the new realities.