Thursday, 9 December, 2021

Waning Power Of Political Catchwords

Waning Power Of Political Catchwords

Prof. Bhupa P. Dhamala

As I ponder over the power of political discourse, Philosopher J. L. Austin’s Speech Act theory occurs to my mind. This theory claims that speech is act, saying is doing. Once something is said, it gets done. It also asserts that any word a speaker utters has an illocutionary force that can produce an effect on the listener. Once someone tells me to do something, I do it or say I don’t like to do it. This is the effect on me as hearer.
There are millions of ordinary things that happen in our daily life. But only a few words have profound effects on life. The rest of language functions are mundane. Who, for example, cares about the effect of such expressions as “How do you do?”, “I must go home, or my husband will beat me,”, and “where have my socks disappeared?” These everyday expressions can very well illustrate the power of words in real life situation but are ordinary and thus unmarked.

Simple though it looks, labelling of things can have far-reaching effects on life. Our ancestors gave names to things and actions in their languages. We recognise them today in the names that had been inscribed by our ancestors. No matter how hard we try to eliminate those names, they persistently recur to our minds. Initial labelling cannot be relabelled so easily unless natural shift in meaning accepted by the linguistic community. In this sense, words have immense power to place indelible marks in one’s minds.

Word power
Some words have special power. Further, they carry such meaning on special occasions. When, for example, police say “you are under arrest,” the accused person cannot escape. When a judge pronounces a verdict on a legal case, “the accused is sentenced to death”, the person involved cannot avoid it. When a priest declares “I now pronounce you man and wife”, the persons engaged get married. There can be myriad instances of this kind, but the cited ones are enough to suggest that words do have power.

As words have so much cultural power, so they have political power too. With the development of complex world affairs, politics has also become intriguing, so politicians happen to invent new political catchwords because they think they have much persuasive power and can produce more powerful effect on the people. Once people are persuaded, they would follow the leaders without questioning. This enables the leaders to rule general people by their consent.

This applies to Nepali politics also. Many catchwords have been used at different times in political history. Panchayat system that was directly led by monarchy reigned for three decades with a powerful catchword ‘nirdaliyata’ (partylessness). Although many rebellious political parties were deadly against the system, this catchword was able to attract thousands of people. Panchayat also introduced other catchphrases such as “class coordination”, ‘partyless democracy,’ etc. They could persuade many people to be organised under this system albeit for a short while.

Nepali Congress has used its most influential catchphrase “democratic socialism” since its inception. A blend of democracy with absolute freedom and socialism with equitable economic production and distribution has been able to organise many cadres. Under this chief catchphrase there are also other catchwords that have power to attract people by the thousand. Among others “Jai Nepal” is one that is used to greet the fellow members, which in turn creates harmony between them. This catchphrase is not less important. At the time of establishment, Nepal Communist Party (NCP) borrowed a term “new democracy” from Mao Zedong, founder of communist China, which became a popular catchphrase to attract large number of people in Nepal.

Likewise, members of the communist party would like to use a catchword “comrade” in many parts of the world to mean equality among all members of high or low rank, not less in Nepal. CPN- UML coined a new catchphrase “peoples’ multiparty democracy” nearly three decades ago as an equivalent of “new democracy”. This catchphrase was able to persuade many followers of communism with more power augmented by its charismatic leader Madan Bhandari’s extraordinary craft of delivering eloquent speech. Recently an offshoot of UML has coined a catchword by labelling itself as socialist despite its frequent use by other political parties as well.

CPN- Maoist Centre conducted “People’ War” for almost ten years with its various catchphrases such as “federalism” and “socialism of the 21st century”. Those catchphrases attracted many people during the period of one decade. They played significant role in shaping political change despite controversies. But the powerful political catchwords are losing their power these days. Practically speaking saying is in contradiction with doing. It is impossible to count how many things someone says – hundred, thousand, million, countless. But only a few things get done in realty. When things that are said are not done or little done, they begin to lose their vigour and cannot attract people’s attention.

Non-linguistic forces
The catchword of NC’s “democratic socialism” has lost its original power because the socio-economic condition envisaged by this catchphrase has never been realised. NC led the majority government three times after democracy was first introduced and formed the coalition government several times under its leadership. But their “democratic socialism” never came true. UML also led the government two times – first as minority government and then as majority led government but “people’s multiparty democracy” has not been realised. The Maoist Centre also formed the government two times but its “socialism of the 21st century” did not show any sign of materialisation.

Why are political catchphrases losing their power? One of several reasons is that politicians today rely more on non-linguistic forces than on persuasive power of words. We see that that they say one thing but do another but still they prosper. As a matter of fact, organisation has been stronger than word. For this very reason, the political rhetoric, which was hailed as the art of persuasion originally, has now been far from reality. This is not a happy condition by any means. If this continues, political catchwords will be used but with their waning power.

(The author is the chairman of Molung Foundation.