Performing Politics, Decoding Dynasty, Theorizing Talk: Constructions of ‘Ordinariness’ and ‘Extraordinariness’ in the Speech and Body Language of Four Young Indian Politicians

Tuesday Seminar
Event Speaker: 
Rukmini Bhaiya Nair
Event Time: 
02:57 PM to 04:27 PM
Event Venue: 
HSS Committee Room (MS 610)


Pavlov (1932) famously argued that language was a ‘second’ signalling system while the body was the primary device reacting quickly and automatically to environmental stimuli. Among humans, however, it is widely accepted that language has superseded bodily gestures in communication and is perhaps the most fundamental feature defining ‘who we are’ as a species. At the same time, this paper notes that human spoken language, despite its abstract and symbolic potency, is invariably accompanied by largely involuntary sets of gestures and facial expressions. What is the subliminal role performed by these embodied accompaniments of ordinary, everyday talk? What do they tell us about communicative and cognitive patterns of behaviour in particular social settings?

Based on a microanalysis of the videotaped speeches and interviews of two of the most prominent political inheritors in India (Rahul Gandhi and Varun Gandhi, one from the Indian National Congress and one from the Bharatiya Janata Party), as well as two other young Indian politicians whose clout comes from non-dynastic sources of power (Navjot Singh Sidhu and Yogi Adityanath, the first again from the INC and the second from the BJP), this study shows how visual and gestural cues, as much as ideological stances, influence the perception and reception of speech – and in this particular case, speeches.

The paper calls on classic 20th century theory by philosophers of language (Anscombe 1958; Austin 1964; Grice 1967, 1991; Searle 1969, 2007) on “felicitous” speech acts in institutional settings; and by ethnomethodologists’ (Schegloff, Jefferson and Sacks 1977; Kasher, 1977) tape-recorded analyses of turn-taking behaviours, as well the work of their contemporary successors (Senft, 2014; Weizman and Fetzer, 2017). All these theorists observe that a great deal of tacit knowledge, structural scaffolding and cognitive effort go into what they call “being ordinary” in every conversation. Cognitive crises or interactive “troubles” in talk occur, according to such researchers, when conversationalists somehow falter in their performance of “ordinariness”.

My paper further suggests that the possibility of such crises taking place is accentuated when public figures speak, since the presupposition is that they have the license to address the public at large precisely because they are not ordinary. It is my hypothesis that this quasi-paradox is especially marked in the case of young political leaders who have inherited their leadership roles by virtue of being dynastic scions. Whenever they face the media and public, these politicians must constantly prove that they are ordinary folk who understand the aspirations of ordinary people and the difficulties they face, even though they are themselves often extremely well off and highly privileged. This research also introduces a new theoretical category: that of “being extraordinary” as a gestural and conversational resource where non-dynastic politicians such as Adityanath and Sidhu address the public. In sum, the paper argues that new observational tools such as videotapes, eye-tracking devices etc. allow us to study language and gesture in tandem so as to invite a reassessment of that the old but sturdy distinction made by Pavlov between primary embodied signalling systems and secondary linguistically sustained, symbolic communication systems. These observations suggest new directions in the theory of talk.


Rukmini Bhaya Nair is Professor of Linguistics and English at IIT Delhi. Her research interests are in cognition, pragmatics, philosophy of language and literary and postcolonial theory. She has authored 6 academic books and over a 100 papers and articles. Representative books include Narrative Gravity: Conversation, Cognition, Culture and Poetry in a Time of Terror: Essays in the Postcolonial Preternatural (Oxford University Press, 2002, 2009). Consulting Editor at Biblio, Nair serves on the boards of international journals like Language and Dialogue and Literary Semantics. She has been PI of grants from the DST to conduct basic research in cognition on ‘Language, Emotion and Culture’ (2009-12) and the ICSSR on ‘The Capabilities Approach to Education’ (2013-16). From 2018 to 2021, she hopes to work with colleagues at IITD, other Indian scholars and the University of Pittsburgh on the 9-country “Geographies of Philosophy” project funded by the Templeton Foundation. Winner of the All India Poetry Society First Prize, she has also published three volumes of poetry with Penguin. Her first novel Mad Girl’s Love Song (Harper Collins, 2013) was on the 10-book long list for the DSC Prize. The Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry (2014) says of her work that it is “widely admired by other poets and critics for its postmodern approach to lyrical meaning and feminine identity." According to Nair, she does research in linguistics for the same reasons that she writes poetry – to discover the limits and possibilities of language.