Politics: Minding the language…

All over the world politicians invent colourful expressions to pepper their speeches and win over the electorate. The more catchy ones become very popular and outlive the popularity of their originators, often long after they are gone. One of the most famous ones is that of US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy who moved his fellow Americans thus: Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

This, and his “Ich bin ein Berliner”, have been quoted umpteen times, The ‘Ask not…’ one has been used in its original or translated by many world leaders, just as the ‘Yes, we can’ of President Obama has been taken up with equal enthusiasm. It was turned into ‘Yes, we can! Yes, we will do’ by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his pre-election campaign, to equally fervent applause and jubilation.

In Mauritius too, we are not strangers to this custom, and several clichés have passed into common parlance. Some are revived with gusto when new elections knock at the door, and while many are innocent and innocuous, others can be quite off-putting and can hurt sentiments. Thus we have samples such as ‘changement sous anesthesie,’ ‘nous pas la pou donne biberon’ (or something to that effect), ‘c…a la reste pareil, nek mouche ki change’, ‘banne la pe alle dans ICU’, ‘vote bloc gagne choc’ (with an unprintable expletive added for good measure!), ‘vire mam’ and so on and so forth.

However, although some of the expressions may become vulgar, nobody worries too much, It is when the substantive contents of the speeches become suspect that people become uncomfortable, to the point that despite the adage ‘adore ce que tu as brûlé, brûle ce que tu as adoré’ which is almost the hallmark of practically all politicians here, there comes a point when people can only take so much.

And when matters of a personal nature come to the fore, this rattles people who would rather that such things be sorted out at another, less public level. Local politicians do not seem to have this level of maturity, and worse is when their relatives too join in the fray. As when someone’s wife was criticized for being childless by another’s wife. To say that this was in bad taste is an understatement, never mind that later when the two adversaries became allies again they seemed to put this incident away.

In a speech that has been widely commented upon in the media, reference was made to an adversary being on dialysis. This was most inappropriate and unethical. The fact that facilities for dialysis were established during the mandate of a particular prime minister is no justification for this reference, because after all that is what political decision-making is about, for the country and its citizens as a whole. And it is the right of every citizen to avail of facilities that the country puts at his disposal; no favour is being done. Such objectionable allusions can have the exact opposite of an intended effect, generating sympathy rather than dislike for the targeted person. No mature leader would do such a silly thing.

Other remarks concerned the pension quantum of an ex-President of the Republic. For one thing, this is an entitlement by legislation passed in Parliament with the consent of all its Members. But why be so selective? After all, there are two other ex-Presidents, one of whom only served for a few months, who receive full benefits i.e. pension, bodyguard, driver, etc. Why were they not mentioned? Or, for that matter, ex-Vice-Presidents, whose benefits are no less generous?

As the example must come from the top, utmost caution is required in the language of all those who are in such positions. We must not sink to levels of vulgarity and of lack of ethics that can inflame further the discourses from adversaries, or that can be taken as an excuse by minions lower down the hierarchy to sink even lower.

Political power carries wider than just political responsibility. There has been repeated talk of ‘cleaning up’; since charity begins at home, a good starting point is surely the language of politicians, especially the leaders.

* Published in print edition on 24 Ocotober 2014

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