Dr Farooq Abdullah is of the opinion that it was my “neech” remark that cost the Congress Gujarat. It is a view widely shared among commentators in politics, the media, the general public -- and my party. I squirm, of course, at the thought that I should have brought down the party that has given me so much.
With the Congress and the BJP racing to the finishing line neck-to-neck, it was inevitable that one indiscretion and the outcome could be tipped in favour of the opponent. That happened in a sufficient number of seats for the BJP to be pushed ahead and Congress to be placed in the invidious category of winning merely a “moral victory.”
Frankly, I was bewildered by the outrage generated by my use of what one editorial has delicately described as an “inappropriate adjective” -- I would call it a “double fault.”
The first fault was that my parents who believed the greatest gift they could bestow on their eldest son was a “good” education, whatever the expense. The desire to make this their first duty was so deeply ingrained in their psyche that when I was barely 12, my mother, struggling in the face of her husband having died intestate, insisted on keeping me and my two younger brothers in the most expensive school that India then had to offer.
But as this was in the immediate aftermath of Independence, my so-called “good education” meant education in English, mostly by Englishmen and women, in an environment where English was not only the sole medium of instruction but masters spoke to the schoolboys in English and the schoolboys spoke to each other only in English.
What went unanticipated was the social and cultural transition that would, by the time I reached middle age, relegate English to a hangover of our colonial past, and lead to English-speaking Indians being dubbed the bastard children of Macaulay’s infamous Minute on Education. All that money spent on me and my ilk has left us a parody of the imperial foreigner -- a brown sahib -- in the eyes of the emerging sons of the soil, who see and project themselves, and are generally accepted as the true children of Mother India.
I had a basic, very basic foundation in Hindi because one of my favourite teachers was my Hindi teacher at school. We built up a rapport, with me attempting to translate his tear-drenched short stories into English and his encouraging and helping me to try to do the reverse -- English to Hindi.
Once I was out of my “good “ education, my Hindi interaction increased -- but that was on the periphery, English being the sole languages of thinking, conversing, writing, and reading. That changed considerably when I was posted to Pakistan at the age of 37.
A lot of Urdu went through my ears and some through my tongue. My Hindi, such as it was, became Hindustani. Pidgin Hindi joined pidgin Urdu to develop in me a strange hybrid -- pidgin Hindustani.
Then, to cut a long story short, I got into parliament at the age of 50. Earlier, as a civil servant, I had listened in awe in the officials’ gallery to a masterly Hindi orator, Prakash Vir Shastri.
Now I found myself on the other side of the aisle from Atal Bihari Vajayee and Sadhvi Uma Bharti. All through my first term in the Lok Sabha (1991-96), I listened spellbound to the two of them, my heart ecstatically racing at the faultless flow of their Hindi (never, ever an English word) and the deep spiritual and cultural roots that permeated their speech. I disagreed almost entirely with what they had to say but was mesmerised at the way they said it.
Thus, it was that my beginner’s Hindi improved enough for me to start using it for interventions in parliament and TV appearances, but I also saw that this “learned” language could never sound authentic. Hindi would always remain for me a “learned language,” learned but not rooted in a milieu where allusions, literary references, and colloquialisms would be part and parcel of the culture of my use of the language. For in my mind, I would translate directly from English to Hindi, instead of thinking in Hindi when speaking in Hindi. This has now proved my undoing.
Was it my ‘inappropriate adjective’ or Modi’s mendacity in adding an utterly untrue noun (jaati) to my adjective that lost us this handful of seats?
It is my friend and former boss, K Natwar Singh, a native Hindi speaker but also an absolute master of the English language, who awoke me from my bewilderment to an understanding of why such a massive row had been generated by my use of the “inappropriate adjective.”
Colloquially, he explained, “neech” is not used literally as “low” but as “gutter.” I had, in effect, compared Modi to a “guttersnipe” -- I would never have done that in English. Macaulay had tripped me up.
That was bad enough. But it got further worsened when Modi, then desperately campaigning in his home state to forestall what many foresaw as his party’s certain defeat, seized opportunity by the forelock.
Within a few minutes of my saying what I said to a TV new agency, he grabbed the word and blatantly lied that I had said he belonged to a “neech jaati.”
I never had, I never would. It was not that Modi twisted the meaning of the word. He just falsely and deliberately added another word -- “jaati” (caste) -- that I had never used. My inappropriate adjective is on full display on YouTube for anyone who cares to see.
Equally, Modi’s blatant lie is on YouTube, for anyone who cares to look. But few, if any, have, damn the facts.
The Congress lost, marginally. Had we won, or had the margin of loss been wider, I could have ducked. But the results stare one in the face. At least 10 seats were lost by a few thousand votes.
Those few thousand votes could be linked to my “haw-haw education,” to my “arrogance,” to my “elitism,” to my having been born to Brahmin parents, or to my inadequate grasp of colloquial Hindi. It is cold comfort to argue that Congress also won some seats marginally, with a few thousand votes.
The fact is that had we won the half a dozen seats that we lost at the margin, Rahul Gandhi might have been in Gandhinagar, beaming at the swearing-in of the first Congress Chief Minister of Gujarat in close to a quarter of a century.
In my mind, however, the question will always reverberate: Was it my “inappropriate adjective” or Modi’s mendacity in adding an utterly untrue noun (jaati) to my adjective that lost us this handful of seats? And, tell me, should I sue the prime minister for slander, libel, defamation -- or all three?
Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. This article previously appeared on ndtv.com. Reprinted by special arrangement.