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Verbal jousts

Et Tu, Tacitus?


The verbal jousts in the Rajya Sabha between the PM and BJP leader Arun Jaitley were refreshingly witty, and sourced from Google.

When Congress leader Jaipal Reddy used the word humongous in the Lok Sabha in March 2002, he had MPs across the political spectrum reaching for the dictionary. Few understood what the word meant and in the storm he provoked, there were demands that the word be expunged from the record as it was unparliamentary. Of course, later, Reddy was able to convince his fellow MPs that there was nothing unparliamentary about humongous;that it was merely slang for enormous. In a milieu in which Macaulay's children seem to be increasingly out of sync, it was indeed astonishing that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and BJP leader Arun Jaitley chose to spar in the Rajya Sabha recently with quotes from ancient Roman Senator and historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus. While they may have lifted the quality of the debate to levels of erudition more suited to the British Parliament, most of their listeners had little or no idea who they were quoting from. Tacitus who? Some of the more curious MPs turned to the Internet and did a quick Google search for a backgrounder on the man who probably figured in the Indian Parliament for the first time. Interestingly, it was Google that provided both the PM and Jaitley with necessary ammunition. Their research teams simply punched "Tacitus quotes" into their computer and came up with a list of his famous lines, most of which are as relevant today as they were 1900 years ago when he penned his histories of the Roman empire. Jaitley was the first to fire. Wrapping up a scathing attack on the Manmohan Singh government during the debate on the motion of thanks on the President's address, the BJP leader said, "A non-performing and a corrupt government can inflict huge damage to a country. This is best expressed in the words of Tacitus, an ancient Roman Senator who said: 'They have plundered the world, stripping naked the land in their hunger... They ravage, they slaughter, they seize by false pretences and all of this they hail as the construction of an empire. And when in their wake nothing remains but a desert, they call that peace. '"

The PM was clearly stung by the harsh indictment of his government. His media managers immediately went to work on the computer. A quick Google search and lo and behold, they came up with a stunning riposte. And so Manmohan Singh hit back at Jaitley. "Since he is so obviously fond of Tacitus, I hope he will not mind if I quote some Tacitus back at him. Tacitus also said, and I quote: 'When men are full of envy, they disparage everything, whether it be good or bad', " the PM said.

Jaitley was taken aback by the quick-witted counter, enough to Google Tacitus quotes again. He says he's found a response which he is saving to use on a rainy day: "To show resentment at a reproach is to acknowledge that one may have deserved it. " Clearly, there is an armory of Tacitus quotes to suit every occasion. Just ask Google.

So who is Tacitus? And why did Jaitley choose to bring him into his speech? Wikipedia describes Tacitus as one of the greatest Roman historians and a senator who lived from 56 AD to 117 AD, a period that has been been called the Silver Age of Latin literature. His two major works, The Annals and The Histories, of which only some portions survive, examine the reigns of the Roman emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and those who reigned in the Year of the Four Emperors (69 AD). It spans the period following the death of the Emperor Augustus in 14 AD to the years of the First Jewish-Roman War in 70 AD.

His relevance to Jaitley's speech comes in because Tacitus' works were a scathing critique of the corruption, court sycophancy and imperial paranoia that prevailed during the times in which he lived and documented.

American scholar and expert on Roman history Ronald Mellor writes in his book on Tacitus that the ancient Roman historian "speaks to us today about the corruption of power, and the ways in which both rulers and ruled are complicit in that mutual corruption". According to Mellor, The Annals and The Histories are "a brilliant and angry analysis of his class, of his age, of the moral condition of imperial Rome, of the ageless corruption of politics and finally, of the psychopathology of tyranny". In other words, Tacitus wrote of a sort of Roman kalyug and by quoting him, Jaitley was perhaps suggesting that the UPA 2 regime was no better than the reigns of the worst of the Roman emperors. Ironically, the quote used by Jaitley was once used by a British MP in reference to the situation in war-torn Kosovo.

This was during a foreign affairs select committee discussion and the MP quoted the last line about making wastelands and calling it peace. But Mellor also records in his book that Tacitus was ultimately rejected by 19th century European historians because his interpretation was too dark. "With a growing belief in progress and betterment of mankind, the gloomy vision of Tacitus became much less congenial and a more optimistic age refused to accept such an unvarnished view of human evil, " Mellor notes. The PM's tone was more in tune with 19th century European historians. He hit out at Jaitley's gloomy pessimism with claims of his government's myriad achievements and tried to best him by throwing Tacitus back at him. It's not quite clear who carried the day. But there is no question that after a long time, Parliament managed to recapture the tone and tenor of days long gone, when MPs jousted with wit and humour, instead of slogans and fisticuffs.

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