Everywhere, the English language is descending into wordlessness. In 2014, the Global Language Monitor chose the heart emoji as its word of the year. This year, the Oxford Dictionaries have picked the “face with tears of joy” emoji. Either people have grown lazy with language or you need more than words to show you feel, as a certain long-haired Nineties band liked to point out.

Everywhere except for politics in India, that is. All year, it manifests itself in a verbal gush, pouring forth in Parliament, on television, at street corners, in rally grounds, newspaper columns and drawing rooms. Sometimes, a political idea seems to come into being or is perpetuated because people have found a word for it. You need the words to make it real, no matter what that Nineties band liked to say. And each season finds its own word.

From development

In poll-bound 2014, we heard the word “development” loudest and most often. Appropriated by Narendra Modi’s prime ministerial campaign, it became a powerful new idea for political mobilisation, drowning out the Congress’s old favourites, “empowerment” and “welfare”.

Development was attended by “aspiration” and “smart cities”, by stories of a tea seller becoming chief minister and of Gujarat’s spectacular economic growth. The prospect of social dynamism, so appealing in India’s unequal society, was twinned with a dream of heroic cities, rising up to the sky in a dance of cranes and flyovers.

The development projected by the Modi campaign was supposed to be one size fits all. It appeared to leave no room for minority politics or the cultivation of backward constituencies. For a while, it did seem as though Modi’s “sab ke saath, sab ka vikaas” had cut across all economic and social divisions, that it had rendered irrelevant the old electoral equations of caste and religion. Of course, it soon became apparent that it had not. The verdict of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls could be broken down into its concomitant parts. Some parts, like the Bharatiya Janata Party’s landslide win in eastern Uttar Pradesh, could be read as a response to a polarising, communal poll campaign.

Later in the year, other terms, such as “love jihad” and “ghar wapsi”, threatened to take over. Still, 2014 ended on a general note of economic optimism, a belief that the much discussed policy paralysis of the United Progressive Alliance was a thing of the past (“policy paralysis” was undoubtedly the word of 2013).

To intolerance

But the fringe that Modi had so carefully distanced himself from would not be kept at bay. As the government’s economic agenda faded from the public discourse in 2015, the BJP’s fringe and mainstream became indistinguishable. As more and more BJP-ruled states fell to beef bans, development was replaced by the cow. In January, Otaram Devasi of Rajasthan became the first cow minister in India.

Implicit in the growing political importance of the cow was the rejection of habits and beliefs that were different from the majority’s. The food habits of the minority were sought to be eliminated, and so a Mohammad Akhlaq was lynched in Dadri for allegedly eating beef. Beliefs that went against the Hindu mainstream were to be suppressed, and so rationalists like Govind Pansare were shot down. Anxieties about this growing trend gathered around one word: intolerance.

Not that these worries are new. As far back as the 1940s, the Constituent Assembly was debating whether different religions could coexist in the public sphere. It was believed that they could, because each faith had its own resources of tolerance. JB Kripalani, a member of the assembly, defined tolerance as the “acceptance, to some extent, of someone’s beliefs as good for him”. Perhaps that’s why “intolerance” resonated so deeply this year: it was the direct negative of that originary word.

The word was used in February by President Barack Obama, who warned about “acts of intolerance” upon returning from his three day visit to India. It prompted a speech by Modi, who directly addressed concerns about freedom of faith for the first time. “My government will not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or the minority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly,” he had said then. But in the months that followed, he failed that promise.

Word of the year

As the year wore on, “intolerance” became the cause célèbre, with authors returning their awards and the usually apolitical Bollywood jumping into fray. Actor Anupam Kher launched a whole rally on verbal differences; he was protesting against the intolerance of calling the government intolerant. The word soon acquired its own constellation of counter-charges: “anti-national”, “sickular”, “manufactured dissent”.

If “development” was the magic word fielded by the BJP in 2014, “intolerance” was the undoing of that idea. It unpacked all the convenient elisions of that earlier word; the people it left out, the insecurities it did not address, the costs it would not admit. It also spoke of a party’s capitulation to its worst instincts.

But something valuable may yet come out of this year’s turbulence. By naming a flaw, a society and a polity begins to recognise it. The fact that intolerance was discussed in Parliament showed that it had been recognised at the highest institutional level. Is it possible that the future policies and agenda of the government will be leavened by this year’s debate on intolerance?