Politics is not just the art of the possible, it is the art of what is linguistically possible – or impossible. The recent brouhaha over the comments of the political advisor to the Trinamool Congress, Prashant Kishor, on who will win the election in Bengal offers us a classic case of how a tiny particle of language, if ignored, can lead to major missteps in interpretation. In the present instance, that almost invisible element is the Hindi word agar (if). This word occurs in the phrase agar vote hai (if there are votes), with which Mr. Kishor prefaces his ‘explosive’ remarks.
Controversy broke out as soon as the two or three minutes of an allegedly hour-long recording of the ‘Clubhouse’ chat were made public. This heated debate has thus far focused on the content of what Mr. Kishor said, on his role as a trusted aide of Mamata Banerjee and whether he should at all have been speaking to journalists in these last, tense stages of the Bengal election. Was Mr. Kishor being characteristically frank – or uncharacteristically irresponsible? What sort of urgent ‘damage control’ measures now need to be put in place by the Trinamool Congress? In response to these agitated queries, Mr. Kishor has in turn asked for the whole transcript to be released.
As a linguist, however, my point does not have to do with the ‘who’, ‘what’, or ‘whether’ of this intriguing turn of events. That is for political pundits. My contention, rather, is that – whether his request for the release of the entire recording is acceded to or not – the shape of the conversation that Mr. Kishor had can in fact be more or less reconstructed from that simple phrase with which he begins his analysis in the bit of recorded conversation we already possess: agar vote hai.
I do not know the exact context of this Clubhouse chat, but as an ordinary speaker of everyday Hindi, my inference, like that of most other hearers, would be that such a phrase was likely to have been used in reply to some sort of question about where the votes for the BJP would come from in Bengal. To this, or perhaps some other preceding question, Mr. Kishor provides a quite specific, on-record answer:
Agar vote hai, toh Modi ke naam par vote hai, vote hai toh Hinduon ke naam par vote hai, polarization, Modi, Hindi bhasi, SC, yeh factor hai. [Translation: If there are votes, then they will be cast in the name of Modi, if there are votes they will be cast in the name of Hindus. Polarization, Modi, Hindi speakers, the Schedule Caste vote, these are the factors.]
Later, Kishor elaborates on his answer. Votes for the BJP in Bengal, he says, will come from the SC Matua community in the 24 Parganas district, 75% of which will vote for the BJP. In addition, impetus for the BJP would inevitably derive from the not negligible anti-incumbency feeling against a government that’s been in power for over a decade, the desire to taste a new BJP brand of laddoo (sweetmeat) not tasted before in Bengal, and a simmering resentment against perceived ‘Muslim appeasement’. Kishor also repeatedly emphasizes the undeniable popularity of Mr. Modi as a national leader whose ‘cult’ status appeals to a cross-section of Bengali voters, just as it does to voters in other Indian states.
What is important to note here is that agar logically indicates possibility, not certainty. The fact that Mr. Kishor, consciously or unconsciously, kicks off his analysis with the structure ‘agar A, toh B’ means that from the beginning, he is not so much ‘conceding defeat’, but rather, conceding that his premise is intrinsically speculative. This is because agar (if) in Hindi always collocates with toh (then), just as ‘if’ does with ‘then’ in English. The relationship here is one of clause dependency, where an outcome is not certain, but depends on a particular set of factors (for example, the Hindi-speaking vote, the SC vote, whether enough Bengalis are enamored of the PM, etc.). Other factors (for example, the women’s vote, the Muslim vote, Bengali sub-nationalism, fear of homogenization, etc.) could lead to other outcomes. They could outweigh the first set of ‘factors’ in numerical terms. This is what the linguistic logic of the ‘if-then’ structure in any language indicates.
Am I placing too much emphasis on a miniscule element of language? Is not the actual content of what Mr. Kishor said more crucial? My answer is that syntax hardly ever lies. It can be manipulated, of course. To quote a well-known example from previous research, a newspaper headline that says “17 killed in Riots” takes advantage of the structure of the passive in English grammar that allows ‘agent deletion’. This clause omits the agent. It does not say ‘by Hindus/insurgents/police’, etc. and in this way implicitly avoids apportioning blame. Much the same could be said of agar vote hai. It implies that the speaker is presenting aspects of a scenario and predicting outcomes on the basis of his perception of ‘factors’ on the ground – but not that X or Y will certainly win.
“April is the cruelest month”, wrote TS Eliot in The Wasteland after the devastation of World War II. There’s now an all-out vote war in Bengal – what the Bengalis would call a kurukhetro kando. This seven-phase war will result in many casualties and generate much uncalled for heat in the coming weeks. We can never be certain of intentionality – Mr. Kishor’s or anyone else’s. My limited point here has been that a more nuanced forensics of language could shed some light on the bitter culture wars now taking place in several of India’s multilingual states and, at times, perhaps also encourage cooler counsel.
(Critical theorist and writer Rukmini Bhaya Nair teaches at IIT Delhi.)
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