Invective in politics

Print edition : June 17, 2005

There is a clear distinction between vulgar abuse, which is censured, and invective, which is admired. But this is little understood or respected in India.

You taught me language; and my profit on't/ Is, I know how to curse.

- The Tempest, William Shakespeare.

The Chamber of the new British House of Commons, which was opened in October 1950 to replace the one destroyed in an air raid in 1941. The Chamber was deliberately kept small in order to maintain "intimacy and excitement of debate". Over the years, the Chamber has been the scene of many an exciting debate in British parliamentary history.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

WHEN Tory leader Michael Howard called Prime Minister Tony Blair a "liar", Liberal Democratic leader Charles Kennedy remarked: "I don't think this is the kind of language and tactics the British public likes." The disapproval was all the more telling for the fact that, he, like most people, probably agreed with the characterisation. This is the only check on verbal abuse, whether during an election campaign or in political debate, generally. The Election Commission is the steward of the electoral process; not the monitor of the political process. It is none of its business even to comment on use of bad language in election campaigns. The same holds good for the courts as well. The Representation of the People Act, 1951, contains stringent provisions to punish persons who intentionally make false statements or stir up group hatred. The Indian Penal Code has similar provisions besides those concerning defamation.

Stafford Cripps was one of the most respected politicians in Britain. On February 14, 1950, during a general election, he accused Churchill of sinking "to quite this level of guttersnipe politics". There is a clear distinction between vulgar abuse, which is censured, and invective, which is admired. When Aneurin Bevan called the British press "the most prostituted" in the world, he was reminded that the metaphor had been used before and more elegantly, too, by Stanley Baldwin: "What the proprietorship of these papers (Beaverbrook's and Rothermere's) is aiming at is power, and power without responsibility - the prerogative of the harlot through the ages," he said in a byelection speech on March 18, 1931. He had borrowed the phrase from his cousin, Rudyard Kipling. This is a good illustration of the difference. It is little understood or respected in India.

Abuse reflects coarseness, frustration and desperation, which stem from its practitioner's correct estimation of his incapacity for better language. It is laboured, too. Invective is spontaneous and witty. Used for political ends, it enlivens political discourse. Abuse debases all discourse. Aimed at lowering the target in the eyes of the mob, it ends up by lowering the assailant in the eyes of right-minded people.

N. Chandrababu Naidu, former Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, has published a booklet containing the choicest epithets that his adversaries, Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy and Panchayati Raj Minister J.L. Diwakar Reddy, had traded in 1993. Vulgar abuse comes naturally to Narendra Modi, Gujarat's Chief Minister, often with communal overtones. The last page of the February 16 issue of his government's fortnightly Gujarat has a crude attack on Railway Minister Lalu Prasad under the heading "Behari Babu". The dates November 15 and 16, 1988, deserve to be remembered in the annals of parliamentary debate. The Lok Sabha was discussing the Bofors scandal. To impress Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, his Cabinet colleagues let loose a volley of abuse on their erstwhile colleague V.P. Singh. Vasant Sathe, true to form, called him ghaddar (traitor) and darpok (coward). As if challenging him to a duel, he said: "Come on Mr. Credible, come on, the cleanest man in India... come on... come on... " This was abuse for its own sake and for personal ends, not hard to detect. In Britain, as in India, abuse has also been deployed to lace political discourse. In 1983 a Tory Member of Parliament called Margaret Thatcher a "great she elephant with Churchillian pretensions". Denis Healey preferred a different animal when he called her "an obedient poodle of the United States", a description which Tony Blair would be proud to own.

The Observer once said that it causes "the ordinary citizen to despise politics... it is a curse on a democratic society". Invective is undoubtedly a form of insult. But it is refined and elegant and is used to drive censure home effectively.

In the last century the greatest parliamentary wit and master of invective was David Lloyd George.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Viceroys have been called names galore. It was left to an English member of the Congress to attack him in elegant invective. A brilliant lawyer, Eardley Norton wrote "An Open Letter" to Lord Dufferin in December 1888 while he lived at Dunmore House in Madras. Only S. Muthiah can tell us about the man and the House. The following month Norton moved to 4, Theatre Road, Calcutta. He wrote: "The truth is, my Lord, that you have fallen a victim to the subtle influences of your environment. The old muscularity of your mind has yielded to the fumes of official incense; you are bordering (sic.) on the belief, formulated so succinctly by a member of the Civil Service here, that `God made the white man and the Devil made the black.' You are effeminate in your distrust of the people. Yet you retain enough of the statesman we all so admired of yore to be ashamed to give explicit utterance to a doctrine out of tune with all that makes a man a man. Thus it is you flounder in inconsistencies, giving vent at one time to a declaration which is in keeping with your past repute, at another to a statement worthy only of a Bashi Bazouk...

"You have made your final bow, my Lord, upon the great stage of the Indian Empire. `'tis mercy bids thee go'. For though we all pray, and many of us believe, that in the invigorating atmosphere of a colder clime, and amid those moral surroundings which give backbone to the sentiments of an English politician, you will regain that virility of understanding which marked your administration of Canada as an epoch of such peculiar brilliancy, we cannot conscientiously avow that your departure is premature. You have succumbed to the flatteries of your office. In Rome or in London may be restored to you the lost vigour of your political manhood. Here it has parted company with you." No Indian ever used stronger language for a Viceroy.

Perhaps the finest example of spontaneous invective was provided on March 6, 1741, by William Pitt, later the Earl of Chatham. The House of Commons was debating curbs on wages of sailors. Prime Minister Horace Walpole casually but slightingly said that "excursions of fancy and flights of oratory are pardonable in young men". He had caught a Tartar. Pitt spoke immediately after and delivered a speech that remains unexcelled as a model of devastatingly spontaneous invective.

"The atrocious crime of being a young man, which the Hon. Gentleman has with such spirit and decency charged upon me, I shall neither attempt to palliate nor deny, but content myself with wishing that I may be one of those whose follies may cease with their youth, and not of that number who are ignorant in spite of experience.

"Whether youth can be imputed to any man as a reproach, I will not assume the province of determining; but surely age may become just contemptible if the opportunities which it brings have passed away without improvement and vice appears to prevail when the passions have subsided. The wretch who, after having seen the consequences of a thousand errors, continues still to blunder, and whose age has only added obstinacy to stupidity, is surely the object of abhorrence or contempt, and deserves not that his grey head should preserve him from insults.

"Much more is he to be abhorred, who, as he has advanced in age, has receded from virtue, and becomes more wicked with less temptation; who prostitutes himself for money he cannot enjoy, and spends the remains of his life in the ruins of his country" (Crowned Masterpieces of Eloquence, 1912; Volume 10; page 76).

In this fine tradition ranks the famous maiden speech of F.E. Smith. Its omission in Leon Harris' able work The Fine Art of Political Wit is inexcusable. The Tories had suffered a rout at the hands of the Liberals in the general elections in 1906. Smith, a new Tory Member of Parliament, took on Lloyd George and Churchill, and lifted the spirits of his party. He spoke against a Liberal motion recording approval of free trade and rejection of protection. The audacious speech has been acclaimed as "the most famous ever made" in the Commons in modern times (The Penguin Book of Twentieth Century Speeches; ed. Brian MaCarthur; 1999; page 13). He said: "It is far easier, if one is a master of scholarly irony, and of a charming literary style, to describe protection as a `stinking rotten carcass' than to discuss scientifically whether certain limited proposals are likely to prove protective in their incidence. It is far easier, if one has a strong stomach, to suggest to simple rustics, as the President of the Board of Trade did, that, if the Tories came into power, they would introduce slavery on the hills of Wales. (Lloyd George: `I did not say that')

"The Right Hon. Gentleman would, no doubt, be extremely anxious to forget it, if he could; but, anticipating a temporary lapse of memory, I have in my hand the Manchester Guardian of January 16, 1906, which contains a report of his speech. The Right Hon. Gentleman said: `What would they say to introducing Chinamen at 1S [one shilling] a day into the Welsh quarries? Slavery on the hills of Wales: Heaven forgive me for the suggestion.' I have no means of judging how heaven will deal with persons who think it decent to make such suggestions. The distinction drawn by the Right Hon. Gentleman is more worthy of the county court than of the Treasury Bench...

"The Free Church Council gave thanks publicly for the fact that Providence had inspired the electors with discrimination to vote on the right side. Mr. Speaker, I do not, more than another man, mind being cheated at cards; but I find it a little nauseating if my opponent then publicly ascribes his success to the partnership of the Most High. What the future of this Parliament has in store for Right Hon. Gentlemen opposite I do not know, but I hear that the government will deny to the Colonial Conference of 1907 free discussion on the subject which the House is now debating, so as to prevent the statement of unpalatable truths. I know that I am the insignificant representative of an insignificant numerical minority in this House, but I venture to warn the government that the people of this country will neither forget nor forgive a party which, in the heyday of its triumph, denies to the infant Parliament of the Empire one jot or tittle of that ancient liberty of speech which our predecessors in this House vindicated for themselves at the point of the sword."

WE live in the age of the idiot box, media advisers and speech writers. Men like Bush Sr. and Jr., who know nothing of syntax, deliver high-sounding speeches in execrable accent. The impeachment of India's first Governor-General inspired Edmund Burke, Charles James Fox and Richard Brinsley Sheridan to heights of oratory and searing invective.

In 1796 Sheridan characterised the Bank of England as "a demure matron playing the coquette with the Minister. Last year much was said in the newspapers about the connexion between the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Bank. It was asserted that the banns had been forbidden. The conduct of the Right Honourable Gentleman, indeed, showed that he cultivated the alliance on account of the lady's dowry, and not for the comfort of her society. At first, the affair seemed to wear the appearance of a penitent seduction; but now it has degenerated into a contented prostitution. The country wishes to forgive the indiscretion, on the hopes of amendment; but what had produced the infatuation was not easy to conjecture, unless the right honourable gentleman had given the old lady love-powder. The heyday of the blood was over; but the rankness of passion had not subsided, for the dear deceiver was taken again into favour and the ruin he had occasioned was forgotten."

In the 19th century, Benjamin Disraeli had few peers in invective. The Irish patriot Daniel O'Connell attacked him viciously in 1835 in a speech in Dublin. He had good reason to be angry. Disraeli was a congenital deserter. He had received a favour from O'Connell only to call him a traitor later. O'Connell said at an election speech in Taunton where Disraeli was a candidate: "I can find no harsher epithets in the English language by which to convey the utter abhorrence which I entertain for such a reptile. He is just fit now, after being twice discarded by the people, to become a Conservative. He possesses all the necessary requisites of perfidy, selfishness, depravity, want of principle, etc., which would qualify him for the change. His name shows that he is of Jewish origin. I do not use it as a term of reproach; there are many most respectable Jews. But there are, as in every other people, some of the lowest and most disgusting grade of moral turpitude; and of those I look upon Mr. Disraeli as the worst. He has just the qualities of the impenitent thief on the Cross, and I verily believe, if Mr. Disraeli's family herald were to be examined and his genealogy traced, the same personage would be discovered to be the heir at law of the exalted individual to whom I allude. I forgive Mr. Disraeli now, and as the lineal descendant of the blasphemous robber, who ended his career besides the Founder of the Christian Faith, I leave the gentleman to the enjoyment of his infamous distinction and family honours."

Disraeli replied by challenging O'Connell's son to a duel. The challenge was declined. Disraeli retorted in a letter to The Times: "Yes I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the right honourable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon."

But it was for his savage attack on another benefactor, Robert Peel, that Disraeli's invectives are mostly recalled. It was a speech which not only brought down Peel's government but destroyed him politically. Peel was a convert to free trade and expected his Tory party to follow suit. One Tory did not and attacked Peel. "The right honourable gentleman caught the Whigs bathing and walked away with their clothes. He has left them in the full enjoyment of their liberal position, and he is himself a strict conservative of their garments." The entire House, laughed and cheered, bar Peel.

Disraeli - and his wife as well - had begged of Peel to give him a place in the Cabinet. The request was turned down. Reminded of it during the debate, Disraeli denied it. Peel had the letter with him in the despatch box, but the patrician disdained to use it and lost to Disraeli leadership of the Conservative Party. It was an abject letter that Disraeli wrote on September 5, 1841: "I confess to be unrecognised at this moment by you appears to me to be overwhelming, and I appeal to your own heart, to that justice and the magnanimity which I feel are your characteristics - to save me from an intolerable humiliation." He destroyed Peel by his speech on May 15, 1846. It was the culmination of a campaign begun in 1845:

"There is no doubt a difference in the right honourable gentleman's demeanour as leader of the Opposition and as a Minister of the Crown. But that's the old story; you must not contrast too strongly the hours of courtship with the hours of possession. 'Tis very true that the right honourable gentleman's conduct is different. I remember him making his protection speeches. They were the best speeches I ever heard. It was a great thing to hear the right honourable gentleman say: `I would rather be the leader of the gentlemen of England than possess the confidence of Sovereigns'. That was a grand thing. We don't hear much of `the gentlemen of England' now (great cheering).

"But what of that? They have the pleasures of memory - the charms of reminiscence. They were his first love, and, though he may not kneel to them now as in the hour of passion, still they can recall the past; and nothing is more useless or unwise than these scenes of crimination (sic.) and reproach, for we know that in all these cases, when the beloved object has ceased to charm, it is in vain to appeal to the feelings (great laughter)... And that, Sir, is exactly the case of the great agricultural interest - that beauty which everybody wooed and one deluded. There is a fatality in such charms, and we now seem to approach the catastrophe of her career...

Winston Churchill.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

"For my part, if we are to have free trade, I who honour genius, prefer that such measures should be proposed by the honourable member for Stockport [Cobden] than by one who through skilful parliamentary manoeuvres has tampered with the generous confidence of a great people and a great party. For myself, I care not what may be the result, Dissolve, if you please, the Parliament you have betrayed, and appeal to the people, who, I believe, mistrust you. For me there remains this at least - the opportunity of expressing thus publicly my belief that a Conservative government is an organised hypocrisy."

Others found no better at Disraeli's hands. He said to Palmerston: "You owe the Whigs a great gratitude, my lord, and therefore, I think, you will betray them. Your lordship is like a favourite footman on easy terms with his mistress. Your dexterity seems a happy compound of the smartness of an attorney's clerk and the intrigue of a Greek of the lower empire." He had said of Lord John Russell: "You are now exhaling upon the constitution of your country all that long-hoarded venom and all those distempered humours they had for years accumulated in your petty heart and tainted the current of your mortified life," adding, "If a traveller were informed that such a man was leader of the House of Commons, he may begin to comprehend how the Egyptians worshipped an Insect."

These fights and feuds were merely preliminary skirmishes when compared with his final battles with Gladstone, whom he described as "a sophisticated rhetorician, inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity, and gifted with an egotistical imagination that can at times command an interminable and inconsistent series of arguments to malign an opponent and to glorify himself".

IN the last century the greatest parliamentary wit and master of invective was neither Winston Churchill nor Aneurin Bevan. It was David Lloyd George. Joynson-Hicks, an impecunious man named Hicks, married an heiress, Joynson, and joined her name to his. He made fun of a phrase "unearned increment" which Lloyd George had used in his Budget speech.

He challenged the Chancellor of the Exchequer to explain it. It was too good an opportunity for Lloyd George to miss: "On the spur of the moment I can think of no better example of `unearned increment' than the hyphen in the right honourable gentleman's name".

His bitterest abuse was directed at Liberals who defected from the party. When Sir John Simon crossed the floor and sat with the Tories, although he called himself a National Liberal, Lloyd George delivered himself of one of the most devastating attacks that had been heard in the House of Commons for many years: "My orthodoxy to Liberalism has been questioned but the right honourable gentleman has been the milk of the Gospel to Liberalism and it is as if there are two types of men in this world, those who drink and those who do not; and it is as if the right honourable gentleman has been a total abstainer all his life and has suddenly taken to drink and there he is; he swayed from side to side and landed amidst the Tory drunkards. The right honourable gentleman has sat for so long on the fence that the iron has entered into his soul.

Now, Mr. Speaker, there have been many honourable and right honourable gentlemen greater than the right honourable gentleman who have crossed the floor of this House and have done so out of conviction. But never has an honourable or right honourable gentleman crossed it before and left behind him such a slimy trail."

Contrary to legend it was not Leopold Amery's peroration in the Commons on May 7, 1940, that brought down Neville Chamberlain's government. It was Lloyd George's speech, delivered extempore, unlike Churchill's speeches. Leopold Amery hurled at Chamberlain Cromwell's brutal words to the Long Parliament: "You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!"

Chamberlain unwisely appealed to his friends to stand by him, Lloyd George seized on this and said: "It is not a question of who are the Prime Minister's friends. It is a far bigger issue. He has appealed for sacrifice. The nation is prepared for every sacrifice so long as it has leadership, so long as the government show clearly what they are aiming at, and so long as the nation is confident that those who are leading it are doing their best. I say solemnly that the Prime Minister should give an example of sacrifice, because there is nothing which can contribute more to victory in this war than that he should sacrifice the seals of office." Its effect was great. Many Tory members stayed in their seats at the division and refused to vote for the government. Even though Chamberlain still had a majority, he resigned; making it possible for Churchill to form his wartime coalition government.

Bevan was brutal in his coarseness. He said to a servile Member of Parliament: "Is it not time that certain members should not act as pimps to the government every time?" At the time of the Suez disaster, Bevan saw Prime Minister Anthony Eden enter the House. He instantly stopped grilling Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd explaining: "Why should I question the monkey when I can question the organ-grinder?"

Unlike Jinnah, Nehru was not given to invective. His pet phrase was "fantastic nonsense". Neither was Vallabhbhai Patel. His forte was the cutting retort and heavy sarcasm. When a ruler of an Indian state threatened to support the British if the Congress pushed him hard, Patel retorted: "That does not surprise me. When the Moghuls were ruling you gave them your daughters to preserve your thrones".

As Home Minister, he had no qualms about reading letters intercepted by the Intelligence Bureau. Neither had Nehru, for that matter. On March 4, 1949, Patel wrote to Nehru, while forwarding the copy of a letter from Ashutosh Lahiri to V.D. Savarkar. It referred to the beautiful Sharaddha Mata's claim that she was "in active contact with you for the purpose of changing your mental outlook". Tongue firmly in cheek, Patel asked Nehru: "I should like to know if you have experienced any influence of the ethereal inspiration and whether the new contact has been responsible for any new development" (Sardar Patel's Correspondence; ed. Durga Das; Vol. 8, page 116).

It must not be left unsaid. Decline in elegant invective reflects decline in the calibre and literary equipment of politicians; in India as well as elsewhere.

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