Skip to navigationSkip to content
India-Politics-Modi-Words
Reuters/Danish Ismail
Wordsmith.
WHAT'S THE WORD?

10 iconic terms that defined the Modi era

By Harish C Menon

The search for weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) by invading US forces in Iraq came a cropper over a decade-and-a-half ago. Yet, WMDs remain piled up across the world, literally.

A quick reading on Wikipedia shows that the term “WMD” is almost 80 years old. But then, its popularity, err, boomed after former US secretary of state Colin Powell powerpointed his way to shame at the United Nations in 2003. So much so that, even 16 years later, Powellian social media users are furiously sharing a satirical piece, which says Iceland’s parliament has branded all religions “weapons of mass destruction.”

That’s what words and phrases do when deployed smartly. Advertisers have known this for long; journalists still get it horribly wrong.

For politicians, though, it’s bread and butter—or life & death, if you please. Be it Bill Clinton’s “It’s the economy, stupid,” Mikhail Gorbachev’s “Perestroika” and “Glasnost,” or Indira Gandhi’s “Garibi Hatao” (remove poverty), words tend to stick, and how. And it doesn’t even have to be done directly. What matters is the context.

In that sense, India’s uniquely placed right now: The 1.3 billion-strong country is deeply polarised. Disinformation is widespread. And a polemicist is at the helm. Can there be a dearth of catchy words and slogans, then?

In the Narendra Modi era, a bunch of new and old words assumed a life of their own. As the nation goes to polls again after five years, Quartz revisits some of the iconic terms that have entered the national consciousness and are now being used alike by schoolkids, tea-vendors, business honchos, the literati, media, and others.

Achhe din

Narendra Modi’s favourite campaign slogan in the run up to the 2014 general elections was in the Hindi language: Achhe din aane wale hain (Good days ahoy!). One of Bollywood’s most popular songs goes Koi lauta de mere beete hue din (someone please return my days past).

The two sentences above don’t necessarily belong in one article, let alone a paragraph. Or perhaps they do. It all depends on which side of the great Indian political divide you are on. But whoever created that slogan did one helluva job. Even southern India’s communists, inveterate Modi-baiters that they are, loved it and deployed a version of it in the Malayalam language to win the legislative polls in the state of Kerala.

Shorn of fluff, the term simply means an escape from the perceived corruption, despondency, and confusion under the previous regime.

Needless to say, India bought Modi’s achhe din. Wholesale.

Anti-national

If the most ardent Modi followers (we’ll come to them shortly) are to be believed, India’s doomed. It is teeming with seditious individuals. Some 69% of Indians, according to Modi’s minister Giriraj Singh, are traitors.

From Singh’s initial definition of anti-national—those who didn’t back Modi in the 2014 election—the term later expanded to include political rivals, college professors, media personnel, Bollywood stars, and, ironically, even deceased soldiers’ kin.

Meanwhile, Singh has now generously included  those who don’t attend his boss’s political rallies, even the ones he himself skips.

In short, Pakistan’s bracing for a crisis.

Go to Pakistan

Oh this one’s easy. Where else should India’s traitors go? Casablanca?

Jumla

For a country weaned on mushy movies, it was a sad moment when, in February 2015, Amit Shah reduced the poignancy of unkept promises to a crude, two-syllable colloquialism. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief didn’t realise then that his attempt to underplay one of Modi’s most high-profile electoral promises was giving even unfaithful lovers a bad name.

But the word, which means an empty promise or trickery, entered the national lexicon almost immediately. By now every single electoral proposal of the BJP’s is a potential jumla for its critics.

Fake news

Every day’s an All Fools’ Day in India now. But unlike April 01, it’s not funny anymore.

Morphed photographs, doctored videos, manufactured quotes—the BJP’s notorious IT cell has pioneered it all in India, only for other political outfits to duly follow and muddy the waters further. Why just parties, even senior government officials and leading economists have begun to deploy fake news to make their point on national television. But then, nothing beats the prime minister himself faking it relentlessly.

Surgical strike

The Indian Army’s pin-pointed assault on terrorist foxholes across the border with Pakistan galvanised a country mourning the death of its soldiers in a terrorist attack on its military base in Uri, Jammu & Kashmir. The September 2016 operation has already made its way into Bollywood. The government now says it has conducted three such strikes over the past five years.

Indians, meanwhile, have conducted hundreds of them.

Any surprise, high-impact move is now quickly dubbed “surgical strike.” These could vary from mildly smacking a buddy’s bum to unannounced class tests in school, to the most profound of national economic decisions. Ah, the last one… that one hurt!

Demonetisation

“This is a surgical strike which the prime minister has done on black money, terror funding and drug money.”

That was Manohar Parrikar, then defence minister of India, in November 2016, referring to the overnight banning of Rs500 and Rs1,000 currency notes earlier that month by Modi.

This dramatic move was aimed, at various points in time, at wiping out black money, boosting digital transactions, aiding financial inclusion, reducing stone-pelting incidents in Jammu & Kashmir, reducing terrorism, curbing pollution, reducing the cost of pizzas in the country, making alcohol more potent… oh wait, we got carried away.

Never mind. Demonetisation ultimately was something of a surgical strike. The military move lay to waste terrorist bases across the border. The economic move lay waste to substantial portions of India’s economy.

The word soon was being widely used for any act that devalued something completely. And just in case India’s 44% native Hindi speakers didn’t grasp the enormity of the move, it was popularised in Hindi as notebandi, or note ban, eerily close to nasbandi (vasectomy).

Mitron

Pity that the “proton, electron, neutron, mitron”  line is already a cliche, or we could have used it here. It’s like every Narendra Modi speech, replete with the ingenious alliterations and acronyms. But his trademark mitronfriends in Hindi—call has struck a chord with his followers, rousing them almost always. His other favourites include Bhaiyon aur behnon (brothers and sisters) and Mere pyare deshvasiyon (my beloved countrymen). That last one still sends a chill down the nation’s collective spine, for that’s how he began his demonetisation speech.

Sanskaari

There are India’s haves and have-nots, according to the Marxists. There are the nationalists and anti-nationals (refer to point one in this article). And then there are the haloed sanskaris and the rest.

Ushered into the limelight since Modi’s rise, or perhaps a little before that, this bunch is everything that the ideal Indian ought to be—traditional, religious, obedient, hardworking, nationalistic, patriarchal, teetotaler, truthful, disciplined, yoga enthusiast, homely… you get the drift.

Technically the word means cultured, but in India’s current context, it just means to be a BJP supporter. It is not clear who coined it, but as a term used to mock the typical Modi fan, it flew.

But even sanskaari doesn’t beat the devotee.

Bhakt

The ultimate insult to a Modi fan, it refers to someone who blindly believes that the Hindutva strongman is the long-awaited messiah.

This list is certainly not exhaustive. Terms like troll, swachh (clean), gau rakshak (cow protector/vigilante), news trader, presstitute, and libtard (apparently a liberal retard) are much in currency. Just that we have already bored you with too many. For more, log onto Twitter and tweet “India loves Narendra Modi/Rahul Gandhi.” You can thank us later.

We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.